The Bewitching of Charlie Thatcher

Copyright © 2013 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.

bewitching

It was just an ordinary cottage. Not made of gingerbread or standing on giant chicken’s legs or anything. Just an ordinary, if a little run down, cottage. Moss on the roof, ivy on the walls. Tiny windows with thick, bulbous panes of glass. The privy stood separate from the main building at the opposite end of a small garden, most of which was given over to herbs and vegetables. A goat stood patiently at the end of its tether, staring at me with its freakish eyes.

I’ve never been able to stare down a goat; the eyes are just too weird.

The front door beckoned and, now that it was so close, I started wondered if this really was such a great idea. I mean what if she turned me into a toad or something? Or worse, what if she said no?

I didn’t have a lot of choice though. I’d tried everything else, and I mean everything. Even where the apprenticeships were filled, I’d asked to try out, thinking that maybe, if I had the aptitude, I’d be taken on as an assistant’s assistant, or at the very least be recommended for a position in a nearby village.

On average I’d lasted less than a day at everything I’d tried. The shortest had been at the flour mill where I’d stared sneezing from the dust the moment I stepped through the door, and I’d not been able to hear anything over the noise the noise so that the miller had needed to lead me outside to tell me to go home. After that I’d tried with the blacksmith and had lasted half the morning before collapsing from heat and exhaustion. With the woodcutter, I’d barely possessed the strength to lift the axe he gave me, and when I started swinging it, he quickly snatched it out of my hands before – as he put it – I lost someone an arm or a leg.

Even Father had given up on me, and he’d tried for a long two weeks to teach me the basics of his trade. He’s a thatcher, which you’d have thought I might have managed at some level, but I didn’t have the strength to lift the large bundles of thatch, and I was a danger to myself and others – so he said – with the long and sharp blades he used to cut the reeds.

It’s not that I was utterly useless. I’ve been told I have patience and a delicate touch, and used to thread needles for Mother and do any of a number of similar tasks, but everything I excelled at was considered woman’s work and not suitable for a young man like myself.

I was good with animals too, and knew my plant lore well enough, having spent so much of my childhood running free in the forest – our house sits on the edge of the village right next to the tree line. That had given Father his last idea when he tried to apprentice me to a trapper. They’re not well looked upon, which tells me how desperate my father had become, and the living they make is harder won than most. I barely lasted an hour with him. I knew my animals well enough – how to track the, where they might be found – but I considered them my friends and adamantly refused to set traps for them.

I was a laughing stock in the village, but then that’s something I’m used to in any case. All my life I’d been the butt of someone’s joke, and it seemed at times that the only reason the other children in the village tolerated my presence was because I made a convenient target for their crude and under-developed humour.

All of which was what had brought me here. I still remembered the first day I’d seen her in the forest and had followed her back to her cottage. She’d terrified me then and she terrified me now. Over the years I’d seen her do astonishing things when she’d not been aware of me looking on, and I’d built up an idea of what her life was like. I had no illusions that it was an easy life, but it did seem like a good and worthwhile one. Hard work but worthwhile – something that had meaning. It’d been some years previous that I’d first decided I wanted to do what she did but it was one of those ‘woman’s work’ things and I wasn’t even sure I’d be allowed to try. That was why I’d tried everything else I could think of before coming here, and now I was here, I just didn’t know.

There was no knocker. I raised a hand to tap on the faded paintwork and the door creaked slowly open.

“Well?”

As syllables went, this one went quite some way. It wasn’t just a question, but a demand, and it didn’t just demand to know what I wanted but how I had the audacity to come here in the first place. My growing uncertainty suddenly went through an enormous growth spurt which left me tripping over my own words.

“Come on, boy,” she said impatiently. “I’ve better things to do than stand here listening to you stutter.”

I fought for control. Something in the old woman’s dismissive manner gave me the anger to regain it. What to say though? You’d have thought I’d work thing like this out before walking up to the door.

“She doesn’t like small talk,” Karen, the potter’s apprentice, had told me. “Ask her straight out, no shilly-shallying.”

Karen was one of a very few people in the village my own age who’d speak to me with a civil tongue if I asked her a question. In the absence of better, I counted her as a friend, though I’m not sure she felt the same about me.

“I want to be a witch,” I said. Short. Sweet. To the point.

She blinked.

“You’re a man,” she replied, as though that settled the matter, and made to close the door. I was ready for her though, and managed to put a foot forward to stop her.

“I know,” I said, “but nonetheless, I want to be a witch.”

She gave me a glare designed to intimidate. It might have worked, but I was so far past scared, it just got lost in the general turmoil of my mind.

“Generally speaking,” she said in a low even tone, “them as sticks their feet in my door ends up losing ’em.”

I withdrew the foot gingerly, but held her gaze.

“I’m sorry,” I said, doing my best to keep my voice steady. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but I am serious about my request.”

“Witching’s a woman’s profession, and you ain’t no woman.”

My ears started to burn.

No, not like that. I mean I’m sure she could have done something like that if she’d put her mind to it, but she wasn’t the sort to set people’s ears on fire. Not even for rudeness.

“I’ve heard of men learning witching, ma’am.” It was a scary prospect contradicting a witch. However safe my ears might be from immolation, there was always the possibility of having them reshaped, along with the rest of me – or so I’d heard. There was a lot of speculation in the village as to who the goat had once been, and in its various forms, it was a story used to frighten young children who wouldn’t go to bed. I half expect my next words to be ‘baa’.

“Warlocks!” She spat the word out like the expletive it so nearly was. “I won’t deny a man can learn the craft if he can find someone foolish enough to teach him, but he hasn’t the heart for it, nor the mind.

“I’ve known a few in my time and every one became so taken with his own self-importance he turned his gift to his own selfish ends and became a danger to all he met. I’ll have nothing to do with warlocks young man, except to help destroy them.”

She could have slammed the door on me then. She made as though to close it, but there was a slight pause in her actions.

“She likes to test people,” Lydia, the barmaid had told me as she poured a pint of ale for a customer. “Don’t allow yourself to be easily put off.” Lydia was another person my age who’d talk to me, but then she was paid to do so. Then again, she’d answer my questions readily enough even though I wasn’t yet considered old enough to partake of her wares.

I swallowed. I could see an opening, but how much did I really want this? I’d already tried everything else though, and the reason I couldn’t do any of the things I knew I was good at was that I was a man. Still, it’s a hard thing for a man to ask such a thing. I’m not sure if it was chaos or clarity of thought that formed the words in my head, or if it was courage or foolishness that caused me to utter them.

“So make me a woman then.”

She squinted at me through screwed up features, her face hideous in its distortion.

“You sure that’s what you want?” No surprise, no incredulity, no ridicule, just a flat, matter of fact question.

I swallowed again. My throat was dry and it took me a moment to find my voice again.

“If that’s what it’s going to take.”

I closed my eyes and waited for whatever horrible sensation would accompany the loss of my manhood.

Nothing happened.

I opened an eye. She was looking at me and waiting, one eyebrow raised slightly.

“It’s not so much being a woman on the outside that matters,” she said. “What matters is that you have to be one in here,” she prodded my chest with a bony finger, “and in here.” Her second target was the middle of my forehead.

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t, you’re a man.” She turned away from the door leaving it open for me to follow, if I chose.

I chose.

I remembered to close it behind me.

I turned to find her rummaging in an old chest. She stood up and hobbled towards me, a bundle of clothes in her hands.

She held the bundle up against my shoulders and let it unfold.

It was a dress. Not particularly attractive but obviously a dress. Faded with age and frequent washing, it was hard to see anything of the original pattern or colour, but the material was sound and clean. It fell to about my knees and was obviously a younger girl’s style. It didn’t occur to me till much later to wonder why she had such a garment, being as she favoured longer dresses that reached to the ankle and never ore any colour other than her signature faded black.

“It’ll do,” she said. “You’d best change upstairs.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You say that a lot, don’t you?”

“But you said it didn’t matter what I looked like on the outside.”

“I know what I said, which is more ‘n I can say for you. You need to learn to listen to what people say to you, not what you think they’re saying. Now do you want what you asked for or not?”

“Yes of course, but…”

“Then you’ll do as I say. When I say.”

There was a warning glint in her eye, enough to close my mouth on my questions. I took the bundle of clothes she thrust at me and headed upstairs.

-oOo-

The dress looked ridiculous on me.

It was sleeveless and fell to just below my knees. My hairy arms and legs weren’t particularly well muscled, but they looked positively rugged where they emerged from my new clothing. The bodice was tight too. Tight enough to strain the seams and give me difficulty breathing. I’d tightened the laces as far as they would go, but there was still a gap which showed considerably more of my chest than would be seemly for a young girl – or a girl of any age for that matter.

I walked carefully down the stairs and presented myself for inspection.

I’ll give her her due, she didn’t laugh. She hummed and hahed a bit as she approached, then tutted as she walked around me.

“Well that won’t do.”

I would have breathed a sigh of relief if I’d been able to take enough of a breath without risking tearing something.

“No,” she continued, “you’d better change back out of it and bring it down again.”

Somewhat confused, but mainly relieved, I climbed the stairs again and changed back into my clothes. I shook the dress out and folded it as best I could before taking it downstairs.

“Sit here,” she told me, indicating a stool by the fire.

I went to put the dress back in the chest first but she stopped me.

“What do you think you’re doing? I said come over here.”

I did as I was told.

Taking a pair of small scissors, she carefully cut through the seams down one side of the dress. Then, with a pre-threaded needle, she started to sew it back up again, leaving as little spare material as she dared.

“I hope you’re paying attention, because you’re going to be doing the other side.”

I’ll admit I hadn’t been watching, but I did after that. True to her word, once she’d finished one side and bitten off the thread, she handed me the dress and the scissors.

Working carefully, I cut through the opposite seam, then taking and threading the offered needle , I started to re-join the two pieces of material.

For all the help I’d given Mother over the years, I’d never actually sewn before. I had watched my mother and sister doing it at times, and of course I’d taken special care watching this strange old woman working just now. The trick seemed to be to take your time and aim to be as neat as possible. Accuracy over speed. It took me a while, but she looked over my work when it was done and nodded her approval. I let out a breath. Another test passed, whatever its intent.

“Now go and try it on again,” she told me, making her slow way back to the chest. “You’ll need this too,” she handed me a white cotton blouse,” and these.” A pair of woollen stockings. “And these.” A pair of cotton bloomers. “Don’t worry; they’ve all been properly laundered.

“Oh, and try putting the dress on the right way round this time. The laces do up at the back.”

Of course they did. I’d seen enough women wearing dresses to know that. I’d not been able to reach the laces to pull them tight that way round though, not without tearing things. It was still embarrassing. I was used to people laughing at me at the least excuse, so it was somewhat unexpected when the old woman’s face remained impassive and humourless. My faced refused to bloom its usual brilliant red in consequence.

I returned to her bedroom and put on the whole kit and caboodle. The stockings felt strange against my legs and they itched horribly. The blouse and bloomers were comfortable at least, but I felt ridiculous wearing them. They both had loose sleeves and tight cuffs – assuming that’s the right term to use when referring to the bloomers. The looseness felt strange and looked stranger, but with the dress over everything it suddenly looked right. At least almost right.

The dress fitted now. It was tight, but no more than intended. The bodice was tight against my torso, but the material didn’t distort and there was no undue strain on any of the seams, even with the blouse under it. The long sleeves of the blouse covered my hairy arms, and the stockings did likewise with my legs, I looked almost normal. I still had a young man’s short hair and soft, downy stubble on my chin, but otherwise I might have passed for a girl.

Back downstairs I received nods of approval and an invitation to sit on the stool once more, which I did.

“If you don’t want to be ironing your dress every day, I’d suggest you don’t just plonk yourself down like that,” the old lady said as she walked over to the mantelpiece with her back to me.

I shot up, confused, then seeing how the dress had folded and creased, I sat again, scooping it under me as I’d seen so many of the village girls doing.

“And keep your legs together.” She retrieved a brush from above the fireplace and turned to face me. “It’s unseemly to do otherwise.”

I did as she said despite the discomfort it caused my man-bits.

She limped slowly towards me and moved to take up a position behind me.

“Sit still,” she said, and started brushing my hair. There didn’t seem much point at first. My hair’s always been unruly and no amount of brushing has ever made it look better. After a while, though, I began to feel an increase in weight, then the odd sensation of long tresses settling on my shoulders and neck. My hands flew to my head, to find my hair now hanging halfway down my back.

“How did you…? Ow!”

She had grabbed a handful of hair from the top of my head and given it a sharp tug.

“What was that for?”

She didn’t reply, but simply gave my chin a gentle stroke.

“It’ll do,” she said, walking back towards the mantelpiece and placing the brush back where it had come from. “Enough for a start in any case. The sun’s nearly down though and there’s no sense wasting good tallow, so I’m off to bed. You can see yourself home. Come back and see me again when you think you’re ready.”

“What!” I cried. “You don’t expect me to go home looking like this do you?”

“Of course I do. You asked me to make you a woman, and as I said, this is a start.”

“I asked you to teach me to be a witch.”

“And I said I wouldn’t teach witchcraft to a man. You then asked me to make you a woman and that’s what I’m doing.”

“But I’m not a woman. I’m a… a… boy in a dress.”

“I did say that the important part of being a woman is what’s inside, not what’s outside.”

“So what’s the point of these clothes? Aren’t they on the outside?”

She sighed. “The clothes don’t make you a woman, but they might help you start to become one.”

“So, what? Letting everyone in the village see me looking like this and laugh their heads off at my expense, that’s going to turn me into a woman is it?”

“Whether they laugh at you remains to be seen, but essentially yes, the way they see you is what’s important.” She turned towards the stairs. “There’s a pair of boots that should fit you by the door. I shall see you when you’re ready for the next stage.”

With that she was gone. I stood alone in her small living room and looked around me, bewildered.

“I should be getting along,” she called down the stairs. “The woods aren’t a safe place for a girl after dark.”

I’d left my trousers and shirt in her bedroom, along with my socks and boots and the rest of my things. I could have gone upstairs and reclaimed them, but that would have meant a confrontation and possibly an end to my last chance. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into, but the hard part with the old woman was getting her to agree to anything. Once she’d agreed, she followed through – that was in her reputation. Maybe, just maybe, if I followed through as well, she’d relent and make a witch of me.

I buckled on the boots she’d left for me. They were a snug fit, but comfortable. I’d never seen her feet, but I couldn’t imagine mine were as small as hers, so where had these boots come from? They had enough of a heel and elegance of design to show them obviously intended for a woman’s feet. How had she known?

I took time to bank the fire and placed the fire guard in front of it then, closing the door, I headed for home.

Outside, the light was fading fast. By the time I reached the village, the gathering darkness would hide me from cruel eyes at least. Between the weight of my now long hair, the swirl of my skirts and the odd, slightly off-balance feel from the heels on my boots, I couldn’t escape the strangeness of my changed appearance. I felt awkward and was sure I looked ridiculous.

It was full dark by the time I reached the village. I’d dawdled a little on the road, fearful of the jeers I felt sure I’d receive, and had only hurried the last half mile, after I’d heard the sound of something large moving in the undergrowth. It might have been nothing more than a badger or a fox, as startled by my presence as I was by its, but it could as easily have been a boar or a wolf. As I picked up my pace, I found myself wondering if I were more worried about being gored or savaged, or being discovered in these clothes.

The streets were dark and empty when I emerged from the trees, the only sign of light and life coming from the inn on the far side of the village. My family were all in their beds when I stepped through the door, the dull glow from the embers in the oven the only light to see by. I undressed in the dark and hung my borrowed clothes carefully over the end of my bed, exchanging them for my nightshirt. With every step closer to home my misgivings about the wisdom of this current course of action had grown, as had my fears of facing the world dressed as a woman. I’d all but convinced myself that it would be foolish to continue, and had formulated a plan. Tomorrow I would wear my Sunday clothes and return the dress to the old woman without subjecting myself to the ridicule I was certain awaited me. I hadn’t yet decided how I could explain the long hair, but perhaps I could find a pair of Mother’s scissors and cut it short before anyone noticed. I closed my eyes and drifted into a dream-troubled sleep.

-oOo-

The cock crowed, calling me back from a nightmare in which shadowy figures taunted me and chased me through a thicket, draped with hanging moss and spiders webs. I woke to a face-full of hair and a blurry confusion between yesterday’s memories and last night’s dreams.

I sat up and looked blearily about me in the pre-dawn gloom – our cockerel has always been a little enthusiastic – and caught sight of the dress and blouse neatly folded over the end of my bed.

Right. The dress. This was such a big mistake. There was no way I was going to go about wearing that in public. I made for the wardrobe and pulled it open.

I blinked stupidly at its contents for half a minute, closed the door, opened it again, closed it.

Familiar noises came from the kitchen as Mother set about preparing breakfast. I made my groggy way across the cold stone floor to join her.

“Mother, where are my Sunday clothes?” I asked muzzily.

“Hello sweetheart, you’re looking lovely today. They’re in your wardrobe as usual. Why do you ask?”

“No, um… What?” I couldn’t remember the last time mother had called me sweetheart and what was that thing about looking lovely?

“You’re not thinking about Aaron the carpenter’s son again are you? I told you, he won’t be any more impressed by you if you go parading about in your best dress. You’ll just upset your friends by trying to be better than them, and probably make a mess of your good clothes doing your chores in them besides.

“Speaking of which, hadn’t you better get on and feed the animals? Your father won’t be pleased if he wakes only to find you swanning about in your nightdress.”

Nightdress? I looked down at my nightshirt. Instead of the expected row of buttons, the neck was more open with gathers and embroidered flowers decorating it. It looked very much like my sister’s, only larger.

“Go on, Charlotte. Go and get dressed and get the chickens fed. Move it, girl, chop-chop. And don’t let me find you in your best dress when I next see you.”

“Chickens? But I thought… Hang on. Charlotte?”

“That is your name isn’t it, young lady?”

Young lady! What had the old witch done. I pulled the nightdress tight to my body and looked down. Flat chest, not so flat further down. My immediate fears vanished. Besides, my arms and legs were still as hairy as ever. What was it with Mother?

“I thought Lucy fed the animals,” I asked distractedly.

“And I thought we’d decided this. She doesn’t much like working with the animals, and you, if I remember, were more than happy to take on the feeding in exchange for her doing your share of the cleaning.

“Of course if I’m wrong…”

“No, no, it’s alright. I’ll get on with it straight away.” I knew from past experience that if I kept pushing, I’d end up with something I wanted less than I already had.

I dashed back through to my room banging the door behind me in my haste. It seemed the length of my hair wasn’t the only thing the old witch had changed. I had a new status in this topsy-turvy, upside down new world, and if I had to choose between cleaning the house and feeding the animals, I’d take the animals any day. I’d seen how hard Mother worked keeping the house clean.

“Wasallanoizzze?” a sleepy voice asked from a small mound in the far corner of the room.

“Lucy?”

“Mmmmmnh?”

It seemed I was sharing a room with my sister now as well. Our parents hadn’t thought it proper for a brother and sister of a certain age to share, so I was used to having a bedroom all to myself while Lucy shared with Mother and Father. How many more things were going to be different?

“Nothing,” I told her. “Go back to sleep.”

I’m not sure she was awake enough to know what was going on, but she settled again. I retrieved the borrowed dress and extras from the end of my bed and climbed quickly into them.

I stroked my chin absently on my way out to the shed we used to keep our animals. Like all the young men, I’d been trying, with little success, to grow a beard. What little downy stubble I had would need to come off if was to go around wearing a… My chin was smooth and hairless.

A drinking trough stood outside the shed. With just enough light to see by, I looked down at my reflection in the still water. It was still me, but framed by my longer hair and with the rounded collar and puffed sleeves of the blouse, I looked somehow more girlish. I tried to think what might have happened to my chin fuzz. I remembered the old woman stroking my chin, just after she’d tugged on my hair. No way! That was complete nonsense. No way would I believe she’d pulled my chin hairs in by tugging the hairs on top. But what other explanation could there be?

A door slammed somewhere making me start. I ducked into the shed before anyone saw me.

I’d helped Lucy out before now, when she’d been sick or when she’d ‘just absolutely had to go somewhere’, so I knew where the feed was and what to do. I’d even milked the goat on occasions so there was no dithering about trying to think what to do, apart from trying to figure what to do with my skirt while straddling the milking stool. Milking a goat I could handle – the eyes were at the other end.

It took little more than half an hour to let the chickens out and spread some corn for them, refresh the feed for the pigs and the goat, and coax a half pail of warm, white milk from the goat’s udders. The sun had risen fully in that time and I stepped out into bright sunshine and almost dropped the milk as I caught sight of Aaron passing on the other side of the road.

“Good morning to you, Miss Charlotte.” He fingered his brow as though doffing a hat – quite the gentlemanly gesture, despite the absence of headgear.

I found myself curtsying involuntarily in response. “And what of it Master Aaron? Are you come to have fun at my expense come your usual?”

“You do me wrong, Miss Charlotte. When have I ever laughed at any misfortune of yours?”

“When have you not? Between Jeremy Pie, Billy Fisher and your good self, I don’t remember a day when one of you did not single me out for ridicule or as the target for some tasteless joke or another, and now you are come to gloat over my latest misfortune. Well laugh as much as you will, I’ll not stand by and wait while you do so.”

“Please Charlotte, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I mean, yes for sure I took my part in making fun of you when we were younger, but I was a foolish boy then, and I’d hope you might see past such actions. I don’t know what it is you think I might laugh at now, but I regret that you are so affected by my antics as a child, and if you cannot find it in your heart to forgive, then I shall have cause to regret them for the rest of my days.”

“Then best you acquaint yourself with such cause, for I am not of a mind to forgive. Good day to you sir.”

I flounced. I actually managed to flounce through the door into our cottage. I didn’t quite slam the door, because I knew my father would have something to say of such ill-bred deportment, but I closed it firmly enough to leave Aaron in no doubt as to my feelings towards him.

On the other side of the door, I leaned back and caught my breath. I never would have dared talk to him like that before, because I knew he would only respond by behaving worse to me in the days to follow. Today was different though. At first I’d thought he had come to laugh at me going about in a dress, and all the anger and resentment I’d ever felt against him and his cronies came to the fore. He hadn’t defended himself though. Had he worn that superior smirk he always directed my way, I wouldn’t have had the courage to speak out against him, but he had neither denied nor retaliated against my accusations, and I had over balanced in my emotions.

I peeked out through the small window beside the door. He was still standing there where I had left him, his face filled with such dismay and desolation I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. It actually took an effort of will to pull myself away from the window and carry on into the house.

“Let me take that, sweetheart.” My father’s strong hands took the pail of milk from mine, which was just as well since they had become weak and a little numb in surprise. The last time I had tended the animals, when Lucy was ill with the croup, his response, when I had come in with the milk, had been, ‘About time.’ When I was much younger he had shown me the same affection and love he bestowed upon my mother and sister, but it had been some years since I remembered a kind word from him.

“Thank you, Father,” I said, still too stunned to move.

“Well, will you join us, or are you too doe-eyed about that boy of yours?” There was something of a twinkle in his eyes as he spoke. Again so unexpected I couldn’t fathom it.

“Charlotte and Aaron sitting in a tree,” my sister sang.

“Lucy!” Mother’s voice was sharp enough to spare us all the second line.

I recovered enough to sit at the table, sweeping my dress under me as if I’d been doing it all my life.

Mother ladled some of the goat’s milk into a pot of porridge heating on the stove and started stirring it. Lucy collected bowls and spoons from various shelves and drawers and placed them on the table where Father and I sat. He directed his full gaze on me.

“So, young lady, what do you think of this young man? Do you have feelings for him as your sister seems to think?”

I looked around the room. Mother and Lucy had paused in their actions to look my way. This was for real. Somehow, they all saw me as a young woman. I dropped my hands into my lap in an effort to assure myself that I was still in fact male. I was. How could they see me as otherwise? Even in a dress, surely I didn’t look enough like a girl to have them think I was. But then there had been my wardrobe, filled with dresses and blouses rather than shirts and breeches, there was Lucy sharing my room.

Last evening it had seemed the old woman’s magic was all sham and nonsense. I had even just about convinced myself the trick with my hair was some sleight of hand. But this was too big a thing. Aaron saw me as a girl. My own family saw me as a girl. My entire life had changed to one of a girl’s. My clothes, my sleeping arrangements, the things expected of me, the manner in which my family behaved towards me.

Suddenly it was too much. My face felt numb and cold and the room started to spin.

“Charlotte?” I had never heard my father speak with such concern. Strong arms caught me as I fell, and the last thing I remember as the room faded to blackness was being carried towards my bed.

-oOo-

“Awake again, sleepy-head?” A cold, damp cloth mopped at my brow and I looked up into the kindly, concerned eyes of my mother.

I tried to sit up. I was under the covers and wearing my nightdress again.

“There’s porridge still in the bowl if you’re hungry. It’ll only take a moment to heat.”

Mention of food set my stomach growling. I didn’t have to say anything. Mother stood up and made for the kitchen.

“Mother, what’s happening?”

“You fainted, dear. We’re not sure what brought it on, but I wouldn’t worry yourself about it. It’s probably time for your monthly visitor.”

Monthly visitor? Yuk! That couldn’t happen to me, could it?

“No Mother. It’s just that… I’m a boy, aren’t I?”

“Charlie,” Mother sat back down on my bed. Hearing her use my name brought a brief second’s respite from the madness, then she ruined it. “Charlie, what nonsense is this? A boy? Of course not. Where did this come from?”

“But, you just called me Charlie…”

“You always used to like it when I called you that. Of late you’ve preferred Charlotte, and I’ll gladly call you that if you wish. I love you whatever you wish to be called.”

“Mother, where did I go yesterday afternoon?”

“As I recall, you went into the forest as usual. You did say something about visiting that old lady who lives there. You know, I do wish you wouldn’t. It’s wrong to speak ill of those who can’t defend themselves, but there’s some say she’s a witch you know.”

“What if she is a witch, Mother? What if I am your son as you say, but after I visited her she changed things and now you and Father and everyone think I’m really a girl?”

“You do speak nonsense sometimes, sweetheart. I don’t know where you get such notions.”

“Who undressed me Mother?”

“I did of course. You shouldn’t be embarrassed, you know. I’ve done it enough times not to be shocked.”

“And you didn’t notice anything unusual?”

“If you’re talking about your chest, dear, it’s nothing to worry about or to be ashamed of. I was a late developer too.”

“What about further down? You know, between my legs?”

“Well you’re wearing yesterday’s bloomers, unless I miss my guess, but apart from that…”

“Nothing you wouldn’t expect to find on a girl?” I prompted her.

She stood up, shaking her head. It seemed she hadn’t looked that closely.

“I’ll go heat the porridge up, shall I? I was hoping you’d still be able to help me with Lucy’s dress for the May Queen, but only if you’re up to it of course.”

There didn’t seem any point in continuing to try and press my point. I smiled with more conviction than I felt.

“I’ll be fine Mother. Would you mind if I went into the forest later?”

“We’ll see. Let’s get through the morning first, eh? Lydia and Karen are coming by after lunch. We’ll see how you feel after you’ve been chatting to them for an hour or two.”

She closed the door on me and left me in peace. Lydia and Karen, eh? The two people who deigned to speak back to me were now my friends. Lydia was friendly enough in the inn, but she had a tendency to ignore me when I we met out in the village. I suppose being seen doing so would have done little enough for her reputation. Karen was more openly accepting of me, but both of them had been obnoxious to me as a child. Incidents, like the one when Karen spilt ink over my work, then told the teacher I’d made a mess, played out on the stage of my memory. I wasn’t sure I owed either of them a great deal of friendship, but we’d see. Maybe there’d be a chance for payback like I’d managed with Aaron.

-oOo-

Dressmaking was fun. I’d never have dreamed it in all my days, but the challenge of fine stitching and the reward of creating something both artistic and precise appealed to me. I’d managed to eat half the bowl of porridge Mother had given me, my appetite having left me part way through. Then, within moments of picking up a needle and thread, I’d found myself totally absorbed. The material was a light blue, shimmering satin, and was so soft and folded so well that it was a delight to work with compared to the dress of the previous night. I applied myself to the task I’d been set, and the morning melted away before the intensity of my focus.

Before I realised it, the hem and all the decoration on the skirt was completed, and it was lunchtime. Mother had left a couple of pasties, made from the remains of yesterday’s stew, warming in the oven. She made us a cup of tea each and set them on the table along with our lunch. I allowed myself a moment to admire my handiwork, and had to admit the dress looked quite lovely. Mother had been working on the bodice and had half-finished sewing on an intricate pattern of coloured beads that set off the work I’d done on the skirt to perfection.

“Your sewing’s better than I remember,” she said, sipping at her tea.

“The old lady in the forest taught me a few things.” Some elements of truth in there. I bit into my pasty. It seemed right to take smaller mouthfuls. It fit in with who I was expected to be here and now. I’m not sure if it was the novelty value or what, but I was actually enjoying this.

“Well, if she’s teaching you skills like that, I should probably reassess my opinion of her.”

“So I can go and see her later?”

“We’ll see. We’ll talk after you’ve visited with Lydia and Karen for a while.”

I looked at the dress again. It was hard to keep your eyes off it.

“Where’s Lucy today?” I asked. There’s usually some degree of noise or nuisance under foot announcing her presence. It was odd how I’d not noticed until now.

“She went into town with your father. It was the only way I could work on the dress without her knowing.”

I finished my pasty and picked at the crumbs left behind.

“Well you certainly have your appetite back, and your colour’s better.”

I smiled. It’s always nice when someone tells you you’re looking well.

There was a knock on the door.

“That’ll be your friends dear. Go and have some fun; you’ve certainly earned it. Thank you for your hard work. Lucy will be thrilled.”

I stood up and leaned down to give Mother a kiss on the cheek – again not something I’d usually do, but it seemed appropriate to the current circumstance – and ran off to find out what sort of friends I had.

-oOo-

“So what’s this I hear about you and Aaron having a spat?”

We were sitting on a felled tree at the edge of the village green, Lydia and Karen perched comfortably on either side of me.

“It wasn’t a spat,” I answered Lydia. “I just remembered all those times at school when he made my life miserable.”

“Oh come on!” Karen all but shouted. “All boys are stupid, you know that. But they grow up into men, and Aaron’s turning into quite a dishy one, don’t you think?”

“You take him then.”

“And in whose world do you think I, or anyone else for that matter, would have half a chance? He is, unfortunately, rather smitten right now, and only has eyes for one person.”

It took a moment. “You mean…? Oh no. No way, not in a million years.”

“Charlie, you’re being unreasonable,” Lydia chipped in.

“Unreasonable? Me? It wasn’t your inkwell he filled up with glue, or your desk he put that snake in.”

“It was only a grass snake.”

“You’d have screamed just as loud.”

“You’re probably right, but it’s just the way boys are. I should know. Try living with a younger brother for all your life.”

“Try living with a younger sister.”

“I thought you and Lucy got on,” Karen said.

I thought back to the number of times Lucy had played the ‘helpless little victim by her bullying older brother’ card to get me into trouble – remembered her evil little smirk when Mother and Father weren’t looking.

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lydia took over the conversation again. “Little boys and little girls both grow up. You have to be prepared to let them off for the stupid things they did when they were younger. I think Aaron was only mean to you because he secretly liked you.”

I doubted that very much. I was the wimpy kid who basically got trodden on by the bigger stronger types. Maybe if I’d actually been a girl there might have been some truth in it. Maybe if I’d been a girl my whole childhood would have been better.

“Besides, we weren’t always that nice to you and you forgave us,” Karen said.

Wrong thing to say. Memories sprang to mind of the day Karen had sneaked up behind me and pulled down my britches in full view of the rest of the school, of the day Lydia told everyone in our class that I liked to kiss boys. It had taken me the whole day to figure out why everyone was laughing. There were a hundred memories like that.

I wanted to get angry with them then, to shout and scream at them, but somehow that didn’t seem the right thing to do. I’d have just come across as some petulant brat who was too spoilt to let go of some minor incidents from the past. They’d leave me to my tantrum and consider themselves well shot of me.

To be honest, I found that I liked their attention and interest, so how could I get my payback without jeopardising their friendship?

It came to me that, since they all saw me as a girl, a girl’s response might well be the answer. I let go of the anger I felt over their years of unkindness, and focused on the misery I’d felt as a result. It was surprising how easily the tears came. I bowed my head and tried to hide them in my hair, as though I didn’t want them to see, but of course they did. They noticed my silence and then the drooping shoulders and then the wetness on my cheeks.

“Charlie, what’s wrong?” Karen asked all care and concern.

“I don’t… It’s nothing,” I sniffed.

“It doesn’t look like nothing.” Lydia placed a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“I… It’s just I never felt like I had a friend in the world back then. It was always so hard being the one who got picked on. I always looked up to you Karen. You were always so pretty and so confident, I always wanted you to be a friend, and then the first thing you did to me was…”

“Spill ink down your front.” She finished for me, tears flowing in her own eyes now.

“They were new clothes too. I mean not new new, but new to me. Mother was so angry with me when I got home.”

“Oh Charlie!” Karen threw her arms around me and started to sob.

“I suppose I wasn’t much better,” Lydia said, finding her fingernails worthy of her exclusive attention.

“Do you remember that wet winter’s day when I had a cold and you shouted ‘slime’ at me because I had a runny nose, then everyone started throwing mud at me? I do. I remember the smile on your face as I stood there dripping and miserable.”

“We were so horrible to you.” Her hair was tied back so I had the satisfaction of seeing the tears run down her face. “I’m just glad we’re friends now. We are friends, aren’t we?”

Suddenly this wasn’t so fun anymore. Whatever the past, these two were my friends now. They cared for me now, and that mattered more than anything they’d done to me.

“Of course we’re friends.” I put one arm round Karen and let my free hand settle on Lydia’s thigh. “I couldn’t ask for better.”

“But we were so mean to you.” Karen had stopped crying, but there was still a catch to her voice.

“Not recently. Not today. It’s just great to have people around who care.”

We sat in silence for a while, each of us lost in our own thoughts. Me regretting having brought up the past, them regretting all the things they had done. A cloud covered the sun bringing a chill with it.

“I’m sorry I brought up the past,” I said, genuinely meaning it. “I’ve ruined today, which was so great until I reminded you of stuff that’s already forgotten.”

“Not forgotten,” Lydia said. “I mean we could see how remembering it all upset you, and we remember it too, and regret it.”

“I know. Which is why it ought to be left alone. The past is the past. What we have right now is pretty special.”

A mischievous twinkle appeared in Karen’s eye. “You know you could try thinking of Aaron like that.”

It broke the spell. I laughed. Lydia joined in, then Karen, and suddenly it was alright again.

“I’d better be getting back,” I said. “I still have some things to do around the house and I was hoping to go into the forest later.”

“Yeah, what is it about that place that fascinates you so much?” Karen asked. “You’re always going in there.”

It was my refuge – a place where I escaped from people like you. Not exactly the thing to say at that precise moment.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I managed to manufacture some enthusiasm. “Nature is so wonderful, and there’s always something new and exciting to see.”

“Whatever,” Lydia wasn’t going to be persuaded that easily. Neither was Karen. Nature was wild and uncomfortable and full of stinging nettles and beetles and spiders and worse. They both preferred things to be tamer. “I guess we’ll see you later then, at the village meeting to plan the May dance?”

“I’ll be there. Thanks, you two. You really are the best.”

My parting shot felt genuine enough to me, but there may have been a sardonic note hidden in there somewhere, prompted by the resentment the still bubbled underneath. I thought I noticed something haunting the looks they gave me, as though they noticed and cared that they had hurt me. I’d never been so aware of subtle nuance before, not in people’s emotions. I knew it was supposed to be a woman’s thing, but I wasn’t a woman, was I? So how come I was picking up on such things? I ruminated on it on the short walk home.

-oOo-

“Charlie!” A madly exuberant bundle of kid sister careened into me from the other side of the kitchen. Fortunately the full skirts of my dress afforded me some protection, or I might have suffered a quite painful crushing injury. “Thank you, Charlie. Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. It’s perfect. I know I shall be the May Queen now, and even if I’m not, I shan’t mind because it’s so beautiful.”

I looked up at Mother. “You finished it? All that bead-work?”

“I wouldn’t have been able to without your help, Charlotte. So thank you, from both of us.”

“May I see it?” Not something I would ordinarily have asked, but I found I really wanted to.

“Mother, can I?” Lucy started jumping up and down. “Can I please? Can I, can I, can I?”

Mother was finding it hard not to laugh, and I wasn’t surprised; Lucy’s enthusiasm was so infectious.

“Oh alright,” she said with a chuckle, “but be careful with it.”

“Oh I will Mother, thank you.” Lucy dashed halfway across the kitchen, jammed on the anchors and spun on the spot. “Stay right there,” she said with a solemnity that she then spoiled by breaking into the widest grin her face could manage and running off towards our bedroom.

The silence that followed was deafening in its depth.

“So,” Mother said after a while, “how did it go with your friends?”

“It was good, I suppose. Most of it.”

Eyebrows were arched. “There’s a comment with a story behind it.” That was as much of a request for more details as I was given, but the silence that followed needed filling.

“I said something I shouldn’t have. I upset them both I think.”

“Well, if they’re your friends, they’ll forgive you. If they don’t, then you’re well rid of them.”

“But that’s the thing, Mother. It’s not me they’re going to have to forgive.”

“Oh? Now you really do have me intrigued.”

I sighed and dropped onto a chair. “We were talking about Aaron and I remembered all the mean things he did to me when I was younger. Then I remembered some of the things Karen and Lydia did as well.”

“And you told them?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I suppose I still feel angry at them for what they did. I think I wanted to hurt them. I’m not sure I even really believed they were my friends.”

“And?”

“Well I did. Hurt them I mean. Karen sobbed on my shoulder and Lydia wouldn’t look me in the eye for the longest time. I felt terrible.”

“Why?”

“It was a stupid thing to do. The only way they would be hurt by it was if they really were my friends. If they weren’t, they’d have just walked off laughing and I’d have looked foolish. As it was they proved that they cared by their reactions, and now I feel rotten for hurting two people I know care about me.”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

“I’m going to have to figure out a way of making things up to them, aren’t I?”

“They’re your friends, dear, not mine, but yes, I think that would be the thing I’d do.”

“Thanks Mother.”

“Any time sweetheart.”

Funny the way timing works sometimes. We’d barely finished speaking when the most stunning vision I’d ever laid eyes on swept into the kitchen. It took me a long moment to realise it was my sister.

It took me another, longer moment to remember to breath.

“Wow!” I managed at last. “Lucy, you look more beautiful than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Lucy twirled and preened, as delighted with her appearance as I was stunned by it.

“It’s missing something,” Mother murmured in my ear.

I’d been thinking something along the same lines. She’d have to have her hair done up, and… “Primroses,” I replied just as quietly. “There’s a bush not too far into the forest that’s in full bloom. I’ll pick some up tomorrow when I go.”

I stood up, trying to break the enchantment my beautiful sister in her beautiful dress had cast. “Well, I came back to see if there was anything you needed help with, Mother.”

“That’s kind of you, dear. I still have to clean the house, and it doesn’t look as though Princess Lucy is dressed to help.”

“I imagine she’s rather tired after her long journey into town as well,” I added, looking down at her over folded arms. “I imagine her royal highness will want to lie down and rest for a while.”

“Oh, no,” she said, still bubbling fit to burst. “I’ll get changed and help, Mother. I’m not tired, and I’m so thankful.”

“Well,” Mother gave me a look, “I suppose that lets you off the hook, sweetheart. Can you try and be back before the sun sets tonight. I worry when you’re out there in the dark.”

“Yes, Mother.” I gave her a suitably contrite look, even though she’d never worried about me as a boy. “Come on Cinderella, let’s get you out of your fine ball gown before the clock strikes twelve and all your mice turn into spiders or something.”

Lucy giggled. Usually she’d complain that I was telling it wrong, but she was obviously in too good a mood this afternoon. I helped her out of her dress and hung it up for her while she pulled on her every day clothes.

“You know,” she said, smiling across at me, “I’m glad I have a sister. Jessica Miller has an older brother, and she says he’s nice enough, but I don’t think having a brother could be any nicer than having you.”

I sat down on the bed beside her and pulled her into a hug. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just held her for a moment, then helped her lace up her bodice before sending her off to do her chores.

-oOo-

The primrose bush was just where I remembered it. I mentally marked the branches I planned to cut off tomorrow and headed on deeper among the trees. It wasn’t far to the witch’s cottage, but somehow the last half mile always seemed to take as long as the rest of the journey.

It stood in a gloomy part of the forest where the path wound back and forth between densely packed trees, but the cottage and its garden stood in bright sunshine, almost as though the trees had withdrawn from fear and respect.

The door swung open as I approached, revealing the old woman sitting hunched close to her fire, knitting.

“You’re not ready,” she said as I raised my hand to knock at the door.

I took it for an invitation, despite the dismissive nature of the words, and stepped inside.

“I’m sorry?” I closed the door, looking around for any sign of the mechanism I felt sure she must use to open it from her seat. What was the phrase Father had used when that carnival had passed near to the village? Smoke and mirrors. That was it. So much of the old woman’s witchcraft seemed to be smoke and mirrors. Still if they were simple tricks, they were well hidden.

“I said you’re not ready. I told you to come back when you were ready, and you’re not yet. Unless you’ve come to tell me this was all a big mistake and you want me to undo it.” She looked up with a warning glint in her eye. “If that’s the case, I suggest you think very carefully before opening your mouth next. I put a great deal of time and effort into giving you what you asked for, and I don’t like to see it wasted.”

That was, of course, the reason I had decided to come, but even before I took my first step on the forest path, my second thoughts had already been superseded by third ones. Wearing a dress in public was nerve wracking to the point of being terror inducing. I’d become used to my family and my friends – as much as it seemed I now had some – treating everything as normal, but every moment I spent outside in the company of others, was a moment in which I expected some stranger or simple acquaintance to start pointing and laughing. Up until now, though, I’d escaped such unwanted attention. Arriving at the door, I found my original intention of asking her to undo everything had been crowded out by a head full of different questions.

“What do you mean I’m not ready?” I approached the small area of warmth close to her equally small fire.

She sighed and looked up from her knitting. “If you’re going to stay, you can at least make yourself useful and put the kettle on.”

The kettle was blackened with use and near empty. I filled it from a bucket of well water sitting in the kitchen, hooked it onto its chain and swung it over the fire. I sat down and waited.

“What I mean is you’re still thinking like a man, at least some of the time. Being asked to put the kettle on, you quite pedantically, and to some degree correctly, do just that. A woman would know that there’s more to making tea, and would set out cups, teapot, tea, sugar, milk and the like – get everything ready while the water was boiling.”

I took the hint and stood up again. The kitchen was small and there weren’t many places things could hide. Within a minute I had gathered all the things she’d listed.

“There’s some fruitcake in the pantry,” she added as an afterthought when I was all but done.

I sought out the fruitcake, a knife, a couple of forks and plates and added them to the tray.

She nodded as I carried the things through and placed them on the low table.

I sat again and waited patiently for her to continue. It was a trick my parents used at times, though I doubted it would have any effect here unless she chose to let it.

She put the knitting aside and turned the full intensity of her gimlet gaze in my direction. “There are them as would disagree with me and with a right mind in some cases, but to me a man thinks of himself, at least in mundane matters, and often in bigger ones as well. His response to a request is to do, if he has a mind, just what he has been asked and no more. A woman will act with a thought to the meaning and consequence of her actions to everyone present. She thinks more outside herself, interprets words in their wider context. You get my meaning?”

I nodded uncertainly.

“You’re getting there. What you did for your sister today shows that, and the way you feel about what you said to Karen and Lydia.”

“How did you know about…?” She cut me off with a glare.

“But the way you spoke to Aaron this morning, and the fact that you would bring up such painful memories with your friends purely out of spite tells me you still have a ways to go.”

“I’ve known women who acted out of spite. Karen and Lydia for instance.”

“You’ve known girls. We’re all of us selfish and at least a little bit cruel when we’re young. When we grow up, we’re supposed to become more caring towards one another. Men, perhaps because of their greater strength, perhaps because they tend to focus on bigger matters, tend to leave the everyday things to us women-folk, without realising that those every day matters are probably the biggest of them all.

“For sure, women can be spiteful and hateful and selfish, just as men can be, but those as have grown up know to invest in the friendships they have, know that a whispered hint is as close to a cry for help that some can give. We don’t look out for ourselves so much as for everyone we know. Being a wife and mother helps in that respect, because she becomes someone who lives as much for those she loves as she does for herself. Once you’ve taken that step, it’s easier to extend it to the other people in your life.”

“I’m hardly likely to know any of that though, am I?”

“You never know. Keep on as you are, the future may surprise you yet.”

“It already has. Why did you send me away from here as a boy in a dress? How is it that everyone sees me as a girl even though I’m obviously not, and why didn’t you tell me that was going to happen?”

She sighed again. “Firstly I didn’t send you away. You could have come upstairs and collected your clothes, but you didn’t.”

“So that was a sort of a test?”

“If you like. It’s as good a word as any, but it’s also a process. You can’t be made to walk this path. You have to choose it. Secondly, I’m not going to tell you. Feel free to tell me if you can work it out. Thirdly, you have to make your own discoveries. If I’d sent you out anticipating what you found, you’d never have learnt as much as you have.”

“Is there magic in this? Or are people behaving as they are because you told them to? How is it that Aaron seems to be so smitten by me? Is he… you know?”

Her smile contained a considerable amount of satisfaction – like a dog she’d been training had just learnt a new trick. I didn’t care for it much. “Magic is what people believe it to be. It also has a price and shouldn’t be used too freely. Aaron isn’t interested in boys, at least not in that way. What he, and the others, sees in you is genuine. They sees it because it’s there to be seen.”

The kettle started steaming. I swung it away from the fire and picked it up with the thick cloth kept there for the purpose. I used a small amount of water to heat the pot, then added a few leaves and poured a generous two and a bit cups full over them. The kettle went back to its place by the fire.

“How did all the clothes in my wardrobe change to dresses? And how come my sister was already sharing my room when I woke? My parents aren’t reacting to a change. It’s as though they knew it was going to happen, or as if I’d been a girl all my life.

“And my father. If yesterday, if he’d seen his son, Charles, walking around in a dress, he’d have taken a birch to me. How is it that he sees me as his daughter now and not his son?”

“Well you have to give me some credit in this, surely, and no, I’m not going to tell you how it works. I told you, I’ll not train a warlock, and you’re still too much of a man.”

“Can’t you at least…?”

“I took what’s in you and put it where everyone can see it. If they think they’ve always seen it, it’s because that’s easier to believe than that a boy can turn into a girl overnight. Of course there’s more to it than that, but that’s what I ‘can at least…’, as you so eloquently put it.”

“How is it you talk country sometimes and at others you sound far better educated?”

“I speak so as to be understood by the mind that’s listening. Sometimes you’re quite bright, other times your quite the village idiot. Now enough of your questions and on to some of mine. To start with, are you ever going to pour that tea out?”

-oOo-

For the next hour, she grilled me on my behaviour towards Aaron and Karen and Lydia. How she knew about it, she never let on, but she knew so many details, it was as though she had actually been there. Mother’s questions had been gentle, but had probed deeply, like a surgeon’s knife. The old woman’s dug away at me like an axe hollowing out a tree. They were brutal and relentless, and left me drained. Many of them I couldn’t answer, most especially those about Aaron. After I’d talked through all the deep seated resentment over the way he’d treated me when I was younger and reached a point where I’d been able to let it go, there was still a fairly major hurdle in the way.

“But I can’t respond to his advances, can I?” I’d protested. “He’s a man, and so am I. It wouldn’t be right.”

“Is that how you see yourself still?” she asked quietly. “You asked me to make you a woman. That’s going to be impossible as long as you insist on thinking of yourself as a man.”

That was pretty much where the afternoon ended. She interrupted my silent consideration of her words to remind me that the sun was an hour from setting, and that I should be on my way if I were to return home before dark as I’d promised.

I took my time on the way home. The late April weather was clement for once, and I had a great deal to think on. It was true what the old lady had said. If I could bring myself to allow Aaron’s advances, I’d show to my friends that I was both willing and able to forgive the past. If I would allow myself to be seen on his arm, after all he and his friends had done to me over the years, then surely such small and infrequent indiscretions as had been their contribution to my misery could be far more easily overlooked.

The thing was I did still consider myself to be a man. Despite everyone else’s refusal to acknowledge it, I was minus some decidedly noticeable female attributes, just as I was plus some equally noticeable male ones. Would it be even remotely possible for me to see myself as Aaron saw me?

I found I rather liked that idea in the same way that I had taken to wearing a dress and stockings. The clothes felt different, and initially the unusual sensation had off balanced my mind, but once I started to grow used to the strangeness, and perhaps more importantly, once it seemed that no-one was pointing at me and laughing, I started to enjoy it. I liked the feel of the skirt swirling around my knees. I liked the stretch and give of the tights against my legs as I walked, even if they did itch. More than anything, I liked the way the clothes made me feel about myself. Perhaps I wasn’t a girl – not in a real sense – but wearing the clothes made me feel more girly, and that seemed to match far better with my personality.

I thought about Aaron as possible boyfriend material, and was astonished to discover that I wasn’t utterly repulsed by the idea. I wasn’t one to condone what had once been described to me as ‘the practices of the city’. I wasn’t sure if I condemned it either. I mean the thought of two boys together made my toes curl, but I don’t think I would condemn two people who chose to live like that. I mean love is hard enough to find in this world, so why not take a firm grasp on it where-ever you come across it. I just knew that it wouldn’t work for me.

But then I thought about what the old witch had said to me – that until I started to believe I was a woman, I’d never really become one. I tried believing myself to be a woman, and oddly it worked. The more I was able to accept myself as a girl, the more I saw other girls as just friends, and the more I saw the possibilities of romance and even love with the likes of Aaron. The thought of Charles and Aaron together was enough to set my stomach churning, but Charlotte and Aaron, that was different. The sense of wrongness that we feel regarding such things as romantic relationships between people of the same gender seems to come largely from the attitudes of the people we live with. While everyone saw me as a girl, it seemed I was free to investigate romance with boys, if only because my friends and family seemed to condone it and even expect it.

There was still half an hour or more of daylight when I arrived back at the village. I had paused on the way to pick wild flowers and make posies for both Lucy and Mother, but I hadn’t been much delayed for all that. I rounded the bend into the village, only to see Aaron sitting on the wall across the street from my parent’s house. On sight of me, he tried to act nonchalant, but he was quite evidently filled with an intensity of awkwardness that only managed to make obvious his intentions.

I bit on the smile which fought for control of the corners of my mouth. This wasn’t a time to risk bruising an already delicate ego.

“Er, ah, er Miss Charlotte, er, Charlie,” he began in none to promising form. I paused to give him time to gather his wits. He really was sweet, and it was quite exciting to think that I was having this effect on him, even if I was a… No! Don’t go there, I told myself sternly. I was a woman as surely as I saw the proof mirrored in Aaron’s eyes just now.

“I think I owe you an apology for this morning, Master Aaron,” I said meekly, throwing the dog a bone. “I have had cause to consider your words, and you’re right. If any of us were to be judged on our behaviour as a child, we’d be in a great deal of trouble indeed.”

“Er, yes! What? Really? I mean, yes, really. That’s what I was trying to say all along, and I’m so glad you see things… see things, er, differently.” I’m not sure if he noticed the brewing storm in my eyes – I mean no-one likes to be told, ‘I told you so’ just after they’ve conceded a point, as I had – but he did realise his imminent ship wreck and scrabbled desperately to save himself. “Er, that is to say, what I did to you back then was thoughtless and unkind, and I’d very much like the opportunity to make it up to you. In some small way that is; I know I hurt you, and I am so very sorry, er…”

“Is there something you wish to ask me, Master Aaron?” The verbal blundering was becoming painful to listen to.

“I was wondering, Miss Charlotte, that is to say, I would be extremely honoured, no, er, delighted if you would, er, agree, to, erm, allow me to take you to the Mayday dance this Saturday.” Towards the end his oration dropped into a mumble that might have been impossible to discern fully had I not already suspected what he meant to ask.

“Alright.”

“I mean, I know I’m not the most handsome young man in the village, and I’m not strong like Jack, the smith’s son, but… what?”

“I said alright. I’ll have to ask my father for permission of course, but if he is agreeable, I would be glad to have you take me.”

Honestly, he was lost in his own private world of fireworks and violin music. I felt my heart melting as I saw how much this meant to him. How much I meant to him. I’d never felt much use in my life. From the incessant bullying at school to the disappointment in Father’s eyes at my inability to put my hand to any craft worthy of a man. Now to have this indication that my good opinion mattered so very much to someone opened me up like a flower. It was a very precious feeling.

“I should be getting in doors. Mother asked that I be back before sunset, and I don’t want to worry her.”

“Sure, sure. I, er, I, if I were to pass by tomorrow morning about the same time as I came today, I don’t know if you…”

“I’m always awake and tending the animals soon after the cock crows, so I imagine you would find me here again.”

“Would it be, er, you know, er, alright to, er…”

“I should think so. I shall try not to be as shrewish as I was this morning. I shan’t be able to dally long; Mother needs the milk for breakfast.”

“Then I shall be waiting, and quite possibly pinching myself black and blue in the hopes that all this has been more than the quite delicious dream it seems.”

On impulse I plucked a flower from one of the posies I carried and gave it to him. “A token then, to make the memory more tangible and less like a dream.”

It would have been forward to lean in share a kiss at this stage, besides, it’s better to leave them wanting. I’m not sure where that nugget of wisdom came from, but it seemed appropriate. I gave him a little wave and turned towards the door. I did turn to smile at him before going in, but then that’s just one of those things you do, isn’t it?

-oOo-

“So what’s this we hear about you and Aaron Carpenter then?”

Lydia and Karen had come visiting as soon after lunch as they dared the following day. Mother pushed me out of the house with a good natured grin even though she was swamped with things to get ready for the dance, and the door had barely closed behind me when Karen pounced with her question.

In all truth, it was no surprise that the story had done the rounds of the village so quickly. Aaron had been waiting opposite the house even before I went out to feed the animals. He followed me to the shed, ‘to help,’ he said, but in actuality he was more hindrance than help. Wherever I turned, there he was in the way, until I almost lost my patience with him. I could see how badly stricken he was though, and it would have been like kicking a puppy to scold him, so I sat him down on a bale of hay while I let the chickens out and spread some corn for them.

He watched while I miked Gertrude – named, so I understand, for one of my aunts who also, according to Mother, eats just about everything she sees – then insisted on carrying the pail of milk back to the house with me. He passed it across to me at the door and set to examining his shoes and the ground near them.

“I’ve been a bit of an oaf this morning, haven’t I?” he asked. “Getting in your way and knocking things about. I shouldn’t have come, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t talk nonsense, silly.” Kicking puppies has never been a popular pastime with me; I empathise too much with the puppy. “I’m glad you came.” In all honesty, though I wouldn’t have been able to explain why, I was happy he’d come. “I enjoyed having your company. The goat’s never been much of a conversationalist.” Aaron hadn’t been either, but he laughed at my feeble attempt at humour rather than moping about his own shortcomings all over again, and for that he earned a brownie point or two. “Besides, Father wants to meet you. He says he has a few questions for you if you’re to take me to the dance tomorrow night.”

The colour drained from his face so fast I was certain he would faint on the spot. I managed not to laugh at his discomfort – well abject terror, more like – but only just. I eased the door open and stepped through backwards, keeping him in sight in case he tried to bolt, and indicating with my head that he should follow.

He was a stammering wreck in front of my father. Worse than he’d been with me, and bad enough that Father looked my way as if to ask if I was sure I wanted to be seen with such a wet rag. I stepped up to Aaron and put a hand on his arm, almost making him start out of his skin, but overall calming him to the point where he could just about converse. Father only had a few questions for him – you know the usual questions a father would ask of any boy brave or foolish enough to ask his daughter out. The answers weren’t important so much as the opportunity to intimidate the poor guy, and to have a little fun at his expense. To be fair on Aaron, once he recovered enough from the nasty surprise, he acquitted himself well, answering all of Father’s questions to his satisfaction and showing such earnestness in his declaration of honourable intent that I was almost disappointed.

He left our house in full sight of the waking village, and it’s uncertain which of the local gossips had brought the news to Lydia and Karen first, only that they most likely all tried.

I scuffed idly at the ground with a boot, unwilling, for the moment, to look in either of my friends’ eyes.

“Well,” I drawled, “my two best friends said something to me the other day about forgiving the past and moving on. It took a while for the truth and value of their words to penetrate my thick skull, but in the end I figured they were right and I had been wrong.”

I plucked up the courage to raise my head. Lydia’s eyes were glistening with brimming tears, and Karen’s expression was unreadable.

“Karen, Lydia, I’m so sorry for what I said to you yesterday. You’re right, we all did stupid things we regret when we were younger, and you’ve more than proved your friendship since. I don’t know why I brought those things up yesterday, but I don’t still hold them against you, and I won’t bring them up again. I’m just glad I have you with me here and now, and I hope that you can forgive me for stirring up the muck and making you both cry like I did.”

It’s all a bit cliché, but we ended up in a three way hug in the middle of the street, soaking each other’s clothes with silly tears. Nothing more needed to be said, and nothing was. We only separated when Farmer Green coughed politely beside us. He was leading his donkey, strapped into a cart piled high with goods for the dance, and he hadn’t been able to get past us on either side while we had our little reconciliation.

We offered him our apologies and moved out of his way. By the time we reached the green, we were all laughing, and everything between us was right again.

“So,” said Karen, always the swiftest of my companions to speak, “which of your two best friends would you choose as maid of honour?”

“You minx!” I cried in mock outrage. “I’ve barely seen him once, and already you’re trying to marry us off.”

That set the mood for the afternoon, and we talked cheerfully over our lunches about our hopes and plans for the future. Actually, they talked. I was just too happy to listen and be part of it. I’d never had much of a plan for my future, only hoping that one day I’d find some place that would be right for me. Right now, what lay ahead seemed less clear than ever, hidden as it was behind the obscuring mist of my current changes.

I excused myself soon after we’d finished eating, and hurried back home to help Mother. Charles wouldn’t have bothered, or more correctly would have considered it not to be his place to help. It was women’s work and not to be undertaken by a man, I’d been told on many occasions. Now at last it was my work too, and it pleased me that I could be a part of it.

Mother was grateful for the help too. Though my experience in the kitchen was minimal, it didn’t take long to learn the tasks given me. Most of what is considered women’s work is mundane and unexciting, which is more likely the reason men choose to evade it than because they consider it beneath them. They wouldn’t do it well either, because what makes it tolerable is sharing it with someone. Women can get lost in the exchange of words and feelings and leave their bodies to get on with what needs to be done. If two men were to attempt the same, they’d be too self-conscious about what they were saying, and possibly too competitive about which of them was doing the task best. In the end they’d become bored and their results would suffer as a consequence.

So many things were different about this life as a woman, and I found I enjoyed more than I hated. There is a satisfaction to be had from sharing a task with someone, from seeing the look of gratitude in the other person’s eyes for your help, from chatting as friends and sharing each other’s lives. It cuts through all of the drudgery and makes it bearable. Better than bearable even, it makes it enjoyable, and as each task is completed, there’s a sense of satisfaction derived from contributing towards something worthwhile.

“Your father’s quite taken with your young man,” Mother said at one point in the afternoon. “He told me how well he stood up to being interrogated. Far better, so he said, than when he spoke to my father about much the same thing, and I can attest to that. I was there, or at least on the other side of a door listening. I felt so sorry for him.”

“If it’s such an ordeal, then why do they do it to each other?”

“I don’t know. It’s supposed to be some sort of rite of passage or something, or maybe it’s a way of getting revenge for the humiliation they suffered when they went through it. Men, eh? Who can really understand why they do some of the things they do?”

Who indeed?

-oOo-

Aaron was waiting again the next morning, only this time he managed to be a little less clumsy. For all his awkwardness, he’d taken noticed the previous day, and this time he helped out by handing me the things I needed almost before I realised I needed them. He carried the milk back to the house with me as well, and I lingered a while with him at the door. I could afford to. With his help, I’d finished my chores with the animals far more quickly than usual.

“I could wish the day away just so it was morning again and I could spend a few short moments in your company.”

It was sentimental nonsense, and I found myself loving it.

“Don’t wish all the day away,” I told him. “We usually make our way to the fête shortly after lunch. If you’re free then, I’d be glad to see you.”

Probably a little too bold for a country girl, but I was feeling my way in this whole experience. Most women have the benefit of a childhood as a girl to draw on, and a mother to guide them through the process of growing up. I was doing my best to learn everything by myself in just a few short days. If I overstepped my bounds, Aaron made no sign of having noticed. He passed the pail into my hands, covering them with his own for a few brief seconds, during which my heart skipped several beats and my breath caught in my chest.

“Wild horses,” he told me solemnly, “could not keep me from your door.”

He turned and walked away. I watched him round the corner and out of sight. He didn’t turn, but I suppose that would probably have been unmanly. I didn’t seem to know anymore.

“Come on girl,” Mother said to me impatiently as I stepped into the warmth of the kitchen. “We haven’t time to waste today. We’ve still pies to bake, and then we’ve all to get ourselves ready, all by lunchtime. And you said you’d help Lucy dress. Honestly, of all the times to go and fall in love, why choose 0busiest day of the year?”

That brought me up short. “Do you think I am, Mother? In love I mean?”

“I’ve seen it enough times in the past. If you’re not, then you’re making a good show of seeming so. Come on, Charlotte, bring me that milk.”

The morning disappeared in a flurry of frantic activity. I learned how to make pastry, and made a pretty good first attempt at it, even if I own to it myself. By an hour before midday, Mother and I were streaked with flour, but the last of the pies were in the oven and due to be ready by the time we left.

“Well, that’s that,” Mother announced to the world in a tone of deep but weary satisfaction. “We’ve an hour now to get ready. Charlotte, go and wash your hands and face at the pump and go help your sister please.”

No thanks were offered, but then I felt none were needed. I experienced the same satisfaction as Mother, knowing that it came from doing my part. Hard work it was, and I suspected very few people, if any at all, would thank Mother for all the food she had prepared for the feast. You didn’t do it for the thanks, although they’re nice to receive now and again. You did it for the satisfaction of being a part of it all. Sometimes being thanked could rob you of that feeling.

I did as Mother asked and ran to the pump. I didn’t want to wet my hair as it would never dry in time, so I was careful scooping handfuls of water and washing the last of the flour from them. A check of my appearance in the water trough showed my face and hair free of blemishes or streaks. I washed myself once more just to be certain, then made my way back indoors.

In our room, Lucy stood by my bed wearing the grin of a conspirator unused to keeping secrets. She stood to one side revealing a dress laid out on my bed.

I couldn’t breathe.

It was quite exquisite. Simple, white and oh so very elegant. I spun on the spot to find Mother grinning at me through her own tousled and smudged appearance.

“How did you…? When did…? Mother!”

“It seemed only fitting that you should receive some thanks for all your hard work and uncomplaining effort. You make me proud to call you my daughter, Charlotte.”

“But you must have planned this weeks ago. How did you know?”

“What mother doesn’t know her own child, dear? Well? Are you going to try it on, or are you going to stand there all day asking questions?”

I needed no more coaxing. I stripped off my every day clothes, folding them neatly over the foot of the bed as was becoming my new habit, and slipped the white dress over my head. For all its simplicity, it was truly exquisite. It had a full skirt that reached down to just below my knee and short, puffed sleeves with lace embroidery decorating the cuffs, neckline and hem.

It would have been perfect if not for the person wearing it.

The first day of May had developed clear and warm. The sky was the sort of hard, cobalt blue that promised a long and lazy summer, and the spring chill was, of a sudden, far gone from the world. I no longer had reason to wear the thick, woollen tights I had been sporting since the transformation of my status.

I gazed down at the dress, at my hairy arms and legs sticking proud of the sleeves and skirts, and I all but cried for the looking.

“I can’t go out like this, Mother. I don’t know what these past few days have been, but the sham of it all shows in the way I look here and now. If Aaron were to see me looking like this, he would hate me for all that remains of his life.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Charlotte. Don’t you like the dress?”

“I love it, Mother. It’s perfect. It’s more beautiful than anything I’ve seen in all my life. What’s wrong is who’s in it. I look stupid. Worse than that, I look ugly. Just a stupid, ugly boy in a dress.”

Mother reeled backwards as though I’d slapped her full in the face. A look of shock and incomprehension settled about her features as her mouth worked silently, her voice robbed from her for the moment. I saw little else as I turned away and buried my face in my pillow.

The silence stretched into forever. My own tears were silent, the anguish to deep even for sobs. No-one moved for an infinite moment of time in, and then…

A small hand touched my arm. My hairy arm. I could feel the hairs pressed between tiny fingers and my own flesh. I looked up into Lucy’s concerned face.

“Charlie?” she said. “I don’t see a stupid, ugly boy. I see my sister and your beautiful.” She pulled something out from behind her back where she’d been holding it in her free hand. “I made this for you. You don’t need it because you’re already the beautifulest person in the world, but I made it for you anyway.”

I reached out and took the garland of daisies she offered. They were purest white like the dress with vivid yellow centres, and they formed a small circlet, just big enough to sit on top of my head.

“I don’t know why you’re sad,” she continued, “but I want you to come to the dance. Please come. If you don’t, I won’t want to go either. I want to be with you.”

I looked across at Mother who was still struggling to come to terms with… well I’m still not sure what. Whether it had been my outburst, which from her perspective may have been totally unexpected and unfounded, or whether she saw something deeper. I mean she’d said it herself, what mother doesn’t know her own child? She must have known I was her son. How could she not have known what this would do to me?

There had to have been some magic involved certainly. My hair had grown a foot and a half under the gentle strokes of the witch’s brush, and my chin had remained oddly hairless since about the same time, whether she’d pulled my embryonic beard back into my face with that tug or what. But what else was magic? Was it actually possible that the entire village, my own mother included, had been altered by some mystic spell to see me as a young woman, or was it more likely that the old woman had enough debt owed her by every man woman and child in the village that they’d been told to see me this way, for whatever reason lay behind the whole scheme. This stood to be the most colossal practical joke of them all, with me as the fool. Was this some sort of payback for my having the temerity to come to her cottage and make such demands of her?

“Lucy’s right, dear.” Mother finally recovered her voice. “I don’t know what’s come over you, but you do look beautiful in that dress. Aaron will be the envy of everyone in the village when he steps up with you on his arm.”

“Don’t you get it, Mother? I can’t go. Not with Aaron, not at all. Don’t you see my arms and legs? They’re more hairy than Mr Fletcher’s hound. I don’t look like a girl. I never have. If I managed to get away with things for a few days it was because I was covered up, but I’m a freak.”

“No you’re not dear, and your limbs aren’t so bad. Not bad at all I’d say. Charlotte, I don’t know what’s got into you.”

“How can you say that? I don’t even look like a girl! How can I be a girl when I look like this?”

“Charlotte, stop it! I know you’re upset, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why. If you want proof that you’re a woman, then look back at just the past few days. You spent all of Thursday morning sitting with me working on your sister’s dress, doing, I might add, some of the finest needlework I’ve seen in my long and weary life. Yesterday you forgave the boy who caused you so much misery when you were younger, and you made up with your friends over a matter that would have festered with the likes of your father or any other man I know for weeks or even months. Again yesterday and today, you helped me prepare all the food for the celebration this afternoon. You didn’t need to be asked, and you didn’t tire from it until the job was done. If I needed proof that my daughter was indeed a woman, and I don’t mind, then that would stand as all the proof I’d need. You could lift your skirts right now and show me something only a man should have dangling between your legs and I’d sooner disbelieve my own eyes than the evidence of the past few days.

“Charlotte, you are my daughter. You always have been for all your attempts to deny it, and you always will be in my eyes. You are beautiful, and even if you cannot see it on the surface – and for all the heavens and all that’s holy I can’t understand why – you must see it within yourself. In here,” she touched my brow, “and in here,” she rested the palm of her hand against my chest, “you are more woman than anyone in this village.”

I so wanted to believe her. In less than three days a part of me had risen to the surface from where it had been held, suppressed by all my efforts to be what my father wanted me to be. It had asserted itself, not so much changing me, but completing me. As I sat there, a war raging within me between despair and desperate hope, I realised she was right. Whatever I was on the outside, I was this on the inside. I had spent a great many years being ashamed of who I was, because I couldn’t aspire to be what it seemed I ought to be, but who had a right to tell me what I ought to be? Who but me?

I squared my shoulders and wiped away the tears with the palm of my hand. Let them laugh if they chose. These past few days I had found my natural place, and I would take it no matter the consequences.

“Well,” I sniffed looking across at Lucy’s still worried face. “If that’s the case, I suppose we’d better get you dressed, young lady. I don’t suppose we have much time now, do we?”

“What do you mean?” Mother asked. “We’re women. We have as much time as we need.”

-oOo-

It was well past the appointed hour when Lucy and I emerged. After I’d helped my sister into her dress, Mother had stayed to braid my hair, while I braided Lucy’s, then she had left us in order to keep Father calm.

We took our time, Lucy and I. A few minutes here or there was of little enough consequence, but to appear looking anything less than our best would have been sacrilegious. I’d heard tell of women in the big cities who shaved the hair from their arms and legs, just as Father shave his beard daily, and my mind turned to Father’s cut-throat razor sitting on a high shelf, out of curious hands’ reach, in the bathing room. The idea was a good one, but it really would have taken too long, not to mention the inevitable nicks and cuts my inexperienced hands would have inflicted on my limbs.

For Lucy, the time was well spent. Her dress was wrinkle free and hung just right. Her feet were encased in elegant, lacy, white socks and white sandals. Her hair was made up in the most intricate of braids and crowned with the primrose garland I had all but forgotten the previous evening.

Yesterday afternoon had disappeared in a surge of frenetic activity, and it had only been when Mother glanced out the window at the fading light and mentioned that she ought to start dinner before Father came home, that I remembered. Fortunately the bush was near enough that I could still be there and back before darkness fell. I had begged use of Mother’s small pruning shears and run off into the fading light.

We had toyed with the idea of borrowing a necklace or some bangles from Mother’s jewellery case, or adding a little colour to her face. Makeup was frowned upon in the country and only sparingly accepted in the far off city, or so I had heard, but there were tricks that could be readily used. Pinching the cheeks wasn’t so painful and it brought colour for a brief while. A very fine dusting of soot could darken the eyelids and under the eyebrows to make the eyes seem larger and more noticeable. There is such a thing as gilding the lily though, and it didn’t take much consideration to realise that Lucy’s charm lay in her natural and unadorned beauty. The dress and hair were more than enough enhancement.

With me, the efforts and results were very different. Mother had left most of my hair to hang loose and taken only a very small amount to form a braided crown around my temples and the top of my head. It formed the perfect seat for Lucy’s daisy garland, and it framed my face well enough to soften what I could no longer continue to deny were masculine features. The dress hung as well as any I had seen worn, but that only emphasised the wrongness of my limbs. I was no hairy animal, nor where my arms and legs as well muscled as those of most young men in the village, but neither were they slender and elegant, smooth and hairless as those of all the girls. I stood somewhere in the middle which meant I lost either way. Dress me up as a man and I possessed an effeminate air. Dress me up as I was now, and no-one could deny the coarseness of my appearance.

I toyed once again with borrowing my father’s razor, but I had neither time, nor skill, nor faith in myself to make things look any better. I considered wearing woollen stockings to cover my legs, of looking for something with longer sleeves to cover my arms, but the day was too warm and they would have looked, if anything, more wrong than I did already. Lucy ran off to Mother and Father’s room and returned with a pendant and a bracelet.

Despite being comfortably off, we had little money available for luxuries. We didn’t miss them, but evidently Father felt he needed to give Mother something more, so some years before, he had bought some costume jewellery from a passing troupe of actors. She had called him a fool, but secretly she had been delighted with her trove, which she kept in pristine condition and wore only very rarely. She had told Lucy and me that we could use some of it if we so chose.

It wasn’t gold, or even gold leaf. The stones were paste and the metal some alchemical trickery that threatened to turn black if worn too often or for too long, but it was pretty enough. The delicate bracelet Lucy clasped around my wrist seemed to do more to emphasise the wrongness of how I was dressed, and the pendant, with its lurid green stone, hung down into the cleavage I could only wish I had.

Just as there is no sense in trying to make something already beautiful more so through adornment, so there is less in trying to do the same for something ugly beyond improvement. My heart sank lower at Lucy’s renewed efforts, but they seemed to please her, so I played along.

We stepped out together into the view of our impatiently waiting Father and long-suffering Mother. Lucy’s radiant beauty served only to highlight my imperfections, but thought I searched for sign of more sadness and disappointment in their eyes, I saw none.

“Well, if you ladies are finished with you frippery,” Father said with mock impatience – at least I assume it was put on, “we had best be going. Charlotte, while I can understand your desire to look as best as you can, there is only so long you can keep a young man waiting before he loses heart. I suggest you go and find Aaron before he decides to throw himself into the mill pond or chooses some equally wasteful end for himself.”

The moment I had been dreading most since I first put on this damnable dress was upon me. Once he saw though my frayed and inadequate disguise, I was certain he would be merciless in his retribution. He would humiliate me so utterly that I would never live it down. He would have to if he were to mend the tarnish this would bring to his own reputation. He would have to play it that this was what he had intended all along, to destroy me utterly.

I hated that he would do such a thing, but I understood, and I didn’t hate him. I had grown to appreciate the shy and bumbling young man who looked on me and made me feel so special. Of all the heartaches I could imagine, none would be worse than to see his affection turned to spite.

I could wait no longer. Much as I might want to, if I didn’t step through the door, Mother or Father would push me. It would be little enough added to the disgrace and ignominy that awaited me, but I would rather face whatever doom awaited me on my own terms. I lifted the latch and pulled the door open.

-oOo-

Aaron turned to see me and his eyes went round like saucers. I didn’t dare wait for him to process all he saw. I dropped my gaze in shame, and it was true shame I felt. I held up a hand to forestall any words he might wish to say.

“Aaron, I’m sorry. I never meant… Look I can explain…”

His hand covered my mouth, halting the stuttering flow of words. He stroked me cheek. My unaccountably smooth and hairless cheek. Why hadn’t the old witch done as much with the hair elsewhere on my body as she had on my face? I felt the fear and anguish within me turn to anger towards her. How could she raise my hopes so, then bring me to this?

“I’m sorry, what?” Aaron had said something and I had almost missed it. I wasn’t sure, but there was something in it that didn’t ring true.

“I said, what’s to explain? What’s to be sorry for? I would have happily waited till winter to see you so beautiful as this.”

“What? I mean… no, I mean what!?” Was this part of his plan to shame me? To lift my hopes yet higher so that he could dash them all the more completely? How could he say such things to me. To me as I was then, a failure of a boy trying with comical, hopeless desperation to become a beautiful girl. “Aaron, when you look upon me, what do you see?”

“What should I see? I only know I’ve known of you all my life, and yet these past few days it’s seemed like I saw you for the very first time. I don’t know what manner of witchcraft you employ, but you have climbed into my heart and my soul, and I know that I am incomplete without you.”

I would have asked him more, asked him about the boy he had so tormented when we were younger, asked him how he reconciled that boy with the girl he seemed to see before him now, asked him how it was he still saw me as a girl. Before I could find the words though, a gentle breeze passed through the trees at the edge of the forest, the light shifted and for a moment I saw a figure standing in the deep shadows.

“Excuse me one moment,” I said and headed for where I was sure I’d seen the old woman. She was still there when I reached the edge of the trees.

“I told you to come and see when you were ready. How are you ever going to learn anything unless you do as I say, when I say?” She maintained her habitual sour expression for a moment longer before allowing it to melt into a delighted grin. Until that moment I’d not been aware that she was capable of such an expression.

“I don’t understand…”

“Yes, you’ve said that before. Charlotte, what was it you asked of me?”

“To make me a witch?”

“Which I told you I wouldn’t because you were a man, so what did you ask after that?”

“I asked you to make me a woman.”

“And what did I say to you about being a woman?”

“That… what mattered was that I should be one in my head and my heart?”

“Exactly!”

“Are you saying that I’ve managed that? That now I think and feel like a woman?”

“You’re not as stupid as you look, young lady.”

“But that’s my problem right now; I look stupid. Why would you do this to me? Why is it that everybody sees me as a woman and yet here I stand as hairy and ugly and male as I’ve ever been?”

“Because you couldn’t learn to be a woman unless other people accepted you as one.”

“What does that even mean?”

“It means that we all respond to the influences of people around us, and the people around us influence us based on what they see in us. While your family and your peers saw you as a young man, they treated you as one. They expected you to stand by yourself, to be independent and strong. They discouraged you from embracing your gifts, and from both giving and seeking support to and from the people around you. How could you ever learn to think and feel like a woman when all your life you’d been brought up to behave like a man?”

“So you put me in a dress and somehow convinced the people around me that I belonged in it. Why not just turn me into a woman and be done with it?”

“Because you didn’t want it, dear. At least you were trying hard to convince yourself you didn’t want it. It’s a natural response for someone like yourself. You’re told you’re not allowed to be the way you feel you ought to be, and you accept, to some extent, what you’re told. Since you can’t have it, you convince yourself that you don’t want it.

“So, since I couldn’t change you, I did the next best thing. I changed everyone you met, and it may surprise you to know that it didn’t take much for most of them.”

“What? It didn’t take much to convince them that Mr Hairy Bear here belongs in a dress? You’re right it is a surprise. How on Earth did you convince them of that, especially since you say it was so easy?”

“I simply shifted their perspective so that rather than judging you on what they saw on the outside – most people are very superficial in their manner of judging others – I made it so that they could see your inner self.”

“But…! Gah! No, you said I needed to learn to be a woman on the inside. Now you’re saying I’ve always been one?”

“Yes, dear. Oh, it’s more complicated than you’re making out, but essentially yes. You’ve always had a natural tendency to gravitate towards a woman’s ways. Your natural skill at such things as needlework and cookery, compared to your awkwardness in more manly pursuits for example. Or how about the way you fell so easily into sharing your thoughts and feelings with Karen and Lydia? The way you just got on with those tedious jobs your mother gave you, and understood from the outset how to make them less so. Underneath it all you were always more naturally a woman than a man – certainly in your spirit.

“But by the time you came to me, your natural tendencies had been overridden by the conditioning you’ve been given for so much of your young life; that you should act more like a man and less like a woman. That needed to be undone, and the only way I could see of doing so was to let you see what your life should have been like. Even then you needed some hefty prods before you started to embrace it.”

“But I only asked to be made a woman so you would teach me to be a witch.”

“Is that so? Well it wasn’t the reason why I agreed to make you into one. At least not entirely.” She looked at the confusion on my face and sighed. “Look, Charlotte, if I had given you what you asked for when you first asked for it, what would you have done with the power?”

I hung my head, knowing the inadequacy of my answer.

“You’d have sought to teach a lesson to those you thought deserved it, wouldn’t you?”

I nodded, all but imperceptibly.

“People like those who made your younger life such a misery?”

I shrugged, which was pretty much as good as an admission. In all honesty, I’d wanted to help people too, but I couldn’t deny that retribution had sat quite high on my priority list.

“And so you see why I won’t train a warlock. What about now?”

I thought of Billy Fisher who hated the taste and even the smell of fish, and who’d had the misfortune to be born the son of a fishmonger. He’d left the village some years before to join some duke’s army. Nothing had been heard of him since. I thought of Jeremy Pie, whose parents had died when a burst bag of flour and a naked candle flame had caused their bakery to explode. Since that day, he’d been raised by his cantankerous grandfather who was in constant pain from arthritis. I thought of Aaron, whose mother had lost her wits when he was too young to remember. Aaron who’d grown up under the same roof as a mad woman who often attacked his long-suffering father for no rational reason. Aaron who was once too young to deal with the horrors of his life with anything other than anger and cruelty. Aaron who’d grown into a caring and sensitive young man, more because of those same hardships and the example of his father than for any other reason. I thought of the dozens of other people within our village who bore some form of suffering or another, and I hurt for them.

“Now you’re thinking like a woman, and now is when you’ll hear the true call to witchcraft, or not as may be. When you do, if you do, then come and see me.”

I blinked back tears that had formed during my reverie. “But I haven’t changed so much. I used to think about other people’s sufferings when I was a boy as well. I used to want to help them then. What’s so different now?”

“There is so much to that answer, dear one, but this is neither the time nor the place to talk of such things. Your young man is waiting, and I imagine quite impatiently by now.”

I glanced over my shoulder to see Aaron pacing back and forth, kicking at stones. It wouldn’t be fair to keep him waiting much longer, but I still had misgivings about being seen with him as I was.

“This isn’t right,” I said. “However Aaron or anyone else in the village sees me right now, I’m still a man underneath all of this. Whatever anyone else thinks or says, I feel like an idiot dressed like this, and when it comes to light that I was a boy all along, it’ll destroy Aaron’s reputation among his friends.”

“Wasn’t that what you wanted all along? A little payback?”

“Maybe at first, but not now. He’s been so sweet, I just don’t want him to be hurt.”

“And what of yourself? What about you being hurt when people find out that you’ve been going around pretending to be a girl?”

“I don’t think I’ll care. Besides, this hasn’t been pretending has it? You told me I wouldn’t learn to be a woman inside unless I embraced all of this, and now that I have, I find I don’t want to go back. If I have to, I’ll feel bad enough from just being a boy again that nothing anyone could do to me would make it noticeably worse. I just wish I could be a real girl all the way through.”

“And that’s what I’ve been waiting to hear.” She nodded, satisfaction etched on every line and wrinkle of her face, and reached for me. “Here, take my hand. It’s time you saw in yourself what everyone else has seen these past few days. Let me help you become what you have always been inside. At least what you would have been, had you allowed yourself to be.”

The wind rose, swirling around us. She closed her eyes and muttered under her breath. The breeze grew until it was just short of violent. My loose hair whipped across my face, obscuring my sight, and my dress rippled against my skin in an oddly disconcerting way. I can’t say how long it went on for, only that I was so caught up in the sensation that time seemed to stop and all the world recede.

The wind faded as quickly as it had come and I found myself looking into the beatific smile of a truly beautiful woman. Old as the hills around us and as gnarled and wrinkled as the ancient oak under which we stood, but still beautiful.

“There you are,” she said as though seeing me for the first time. “Hardships grow within us like pearls, and it would have been a shame and a waste to have left such beauty as you possess locked up inside you.”

I looked down at myself, at slender arms and legs, at milky white skin, as smooth and soft as a baby’s, at two small mounds pushing out through the front of my dress. I pressed my legs together and felt nothing between them. I was complete. In a way I’d never realised I could be, in a way I hadn’t realised until today that I wanted to be, I was complete. I looked up into the old woman’s face.

“Witchcraft’s a lonely road, Charlotte. It has its rewards, as you already suspect, but it’s lonely. You have a life to lead now, and the love of family and friends and a young man to enjoy. I suggest you go on and make the most of it.”

“But…”

“Come and see me when the revelry is done.” She released my hand and stepped back, disappearing into the shadows. Her words receded with her until they were little more than a whisper on the wind. “We’ll talk some more.”

-oOo-

Turning back to Aaron felt very different. In all of my life since childhood, I’d had very little reason to believe in myself. First as a boy who never seemed to be able to fulfil his potential enough to make friends or satisfy his parents, then more recently as a boy in a dress who everyone saw and accepted as a girl, but couldn’t accept himself enough to believe fully in everyone’s acceptance.

Now though, I was filled with a sense of hope and expectancy. I hadn’t seen my reflection, but from what I’d seen of my body, I was attractive enough to elicit a positive response from the young man before me. It crossed my mind that it was a feeling few enough girls are fortunate enough to experience, and I filled with a sense of gratitude towards the old witch for the hopes I now had. Before she’d changed me, I’d enjoyed Aaron’s attention, but hadn’t been able to accept that I deserved it. Now, I could see through his eyes though, and in doing so, I saw in myself someone to be cherished. It filled me with a sense of self-worth the like of which I’d never realised was possible.

I hooked my arm through his and leaned into his shoulder, filled to sighing with contentment, and together we walked towards the village green.

-oOo-

The dance was the best I remember, and little surprise there. In years gone by, I had sat to one side and done all I could to be ignored. Some years Aaron and his friends found me and conjured up some new way to torment me, others I remained well enough obscured and watch everyone else enjoy the revels. This year was the first in which I truly joined in, and in which so many noticed me for the first time.

I danced until I was dizzy and breathless with no end of young men seeking my hand. No matter who I danced with though, my gaze always turned towards Aaron, and always found his gaze returning mine. There was no jealousy in his eyes, and nothing untoward. He simply enjoyed the sight of me, and I took equal delight in his pleasure. I returned to him as often as I could, and he would always have a plate of food or a cool drink waiting for me.

Lucy was elected May Queen, which delighted her beyond measure, and even brought a smile to Father’s usually taciturn face. The pies Mother and I had prepared disappeared with agreeable speed. There was no official competition to decide the most proficient baker in the village, but everyone knew the unofficial title belonged to the stall that emptied the fastest. Despite being the more filled, ours emptied first by quite a margin and, though I would never dare accuse Mother of gloating, even she could not deny the air of smug satisfaction that she carried through the evening.

Aaron did not dance with me once during the afternoon through the constant stream of reels and jigs, but as soon as evening came and the music mellowed, He took my hand, and as the light faded around us, danced with him and no other. He was strong and gentle, and I lost myself to his lead, feeling utterly safe and content in his arms.

We stayed together till the last dance, when all but the most passionate of revellers had long since gone to their beds, and then he walked me home. I placed my arm through the crook of his elbow, as I had earlier, and leaned into him, utterly at peace. We walked in silence through the deserted streets, a brilliant half-moon lighting our way. I could have wished for the road to have stretched on forever and the night never to have ended.

We were halfway to my house and shortening our pace with every step, when Aaron broke the silence.

“Earlier this afternoon, at the edge of the trees, that was the old witch lady who lives in the forest you were talking to, wasn’t it?”

I nodded my head and squeezed his arm.

“Father tells me I would be dead but for her. I wish I were. I wish she had never interfered.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because my mother would still have her right mind.”

I stopped, pulling him round to face me. He kept his gaze fixed on the ground between us, avoiding mine. After a long pause he continued in a quiet voice.

“My birthing was difficult, I’m told. The old lady was there, of course, as she has been for every birth in the village since anyone can remember. I know little enough about it, but, so Father says, there came a time after a whole day and night, that Mother was beyond exhaustion and the old woman told him that she couldn’t save both us.

“He won’t tell me what happened after that, all I know is the consequence, and I hate her for it.

“She told me once that I owed her a debt for my life and that one day she would call on me for payment. She can wait till hell freezes for all I care, she won’t get anything from me.”

Pain and regret had turned to anger in his tone, and Aaron was looking everywhere but at me. It was as though he sought her twisted figure somewhere in the shadows around us, so he could shout his defiance directly at her.

I took his face between my hands and turned him to look into my eyes. The anger melted away as he saw me, saw my concern, and he relaxed a little.

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for you – must still be.”

“All I know is I blame her for it, and I wouldn’t have you spend any time with her. She’s evil and I don’t want to lose you to her too, not having so recently found you.”

“She’s not as you think, Aaron…”

“She’s cast you under spell, Charlotte. There is no good in her, I tell you.”

“And what if I were to tell you, you wouldn’t have me but for her?”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t explain it, but what if were true?”

“Did she make you fall in love with me? Is that it? Would you have no feelings for me but for her?”

“In a way there is truth in that. I hated you for so long because of how unkind you were to me, but she helped me to see past that.”

“She told you about my mother didn’t she, and now you feel sorry for me. This isn’t love you feel, but pity. I should have known. Nothing she touches is of worth; it all turns to ash.”

“Aaron! None of that’s true.”

“And she has bewitched you to boot. Well I want none of your pity, Charlotte Thatcher. If you can show me no love, then at least do me the kindness of showing me honesty.”

“Aaron, you’re twisting things around.”

“Am I?” He pulled out of my embrace. “Or is it you that’s twisting things? I thought you cared for me, but for so long as I see you taking the part of that old crone, I’ll know you to be no better than her.

“Thank you for accompanying me to the dance today, Miss Charlotte.” His manner turned cold and sardonic. “But I’ll thank you to stay away from me and mine henceforth.”

He turned on his heels and strode off into the dark.

A numbness crept over me, and was shortly overtaken by an unfamiliar flood of emotions. I had experienced pain through most of my tortured childhood. Physical pain was the easiest. Emotional had always been the hardest to bear – the pain of betrayal and loss. This was the same, only far more intense. I couldn’t help myself, I ran for home, overcome by an anguish that washed over me like a torrent following a summer storm.

-oOo-

I woke to a grey dawn, and found its absence of colour matching my own mood. There was no Aaron waiting to greet me, but then I hadn’t expected him. I completed my chores with mechanical listlessness and joined my family for breakfast.

Mother had been waiting up when I returned the previous night, and, on seeing my expression, had pulled me into a soft and comforting embrace where I had released all my hurt in a flood of tears that might have threatened to drown us both, had they not eventually reached an end.

I had been utterly spent after crying, and Mother had helped me to bed without uttering a single word.

She’d evidently spoken to Father and Lucy, because all three sat in subdued silence as we ate our way through our bowls of porridge.

What a wonderful thing oatmeal can be. A grey and flavourless cereal for a grey day and a grey mood. I managed a few spoons full then lay it to one side.

“May I be excused?” I asked. “I know there are things to be done, Mother, but please may I spend the morning in the forest? I’ll do my share and more when I return.”

Mother nodded towards Father, who cleared his throat.

“I should think… that will be alright.”

I could see they were burning with questions, but I knew if I tried to answer them then and there, I would break down again. I rose from my seat, thanked them and walked out of the house.

-oOo-

The forest was quiet. Just as the brilliance of a spring day will bring the animals and birds out to sing and chatter at one another, so an unexpected overcast can subdue them. It was as well. While I usually appreciated their company, I was glad of the solitude. Even the cold was a friend, causing me to wrap my shawl more tightly around me, so it felt as though it were comforting me with its embrace.

Smoke rose from the chimney as I approached the cottage. The door was ajar and I eased it further open to find the old woman sitting in her usual spot. U[on my arrival, the kettle started steaming and she rose to pour it into the tea pot. Two cups waited on table.

I wanted to run to her, to throw my arms around her and sob all my anguish into her bosom. I’m not sure what held me back, but I took a deep breath and remained standing by the door.

“Good,” she said, settling the kettle on its hook beside the fire. “It is well you should endure this in your own strength.”

“You knew what would happen?” An inkling that maybe Aaron hadn’t been so far wrong about her nagged at the back of my mind.

“Not exactly. Not so soon, and not in the way it did.”

“Then how did you know I was coming?”

She waved upwards. “The weather.”

I looked out at the grey clouds, distorted by the misshapen panes.

“That’s me?”

“Does it surprise you so? Didn’t it occur to you how fine the weather has been since you and Aaron have been spending time together?”

“But that must mean I’m a…”

“Witch? Not by a long stretch, my girl. You have it within you, as do we all, but this is just an overflowing of your feelings.

“Come and sit. You have questions and the tea’s getting cold.”

I did as I was told – yes, when I was told too – and took over pouring the tea.

“I hardly know where to begin.”

“Yes you do. You want to know what happened to your friend.”

I paused in pouring and leaned back a moment, looking across at her.

“Alright, yes I do.”

“Good. It’s as well you should know to speak your mind. No-one else will do it for you.

“The night your friend Aaron was born, I was called late to the house. I don’t know if Jack Carpenter was too proud or too distrustful, but he didn’t send for me until it was obvious, even to him, that something was awry.

“I was near when he came looking, and came as soon as he asked.”

“You mean you knew something was wrong? Why didn’t you go and help anyway.”

“I’ll not go where I’m not wanted. I have little enough power when I’m not given it.

“Anyway Sally Carpenter was in a bad way. Already ten hours into labour and little enough to show for it. She was tired and worn down from the pain of it all.

“I felt around and it seemed the baby was turned inside her, and by then it was all but trying to come out sideways. I did what I could to ease things, but it took time, and with each passing moment she weakened further.

“There was never a time when I could have saved them both, and only after some long hours of trying everything I knew, all I managed was to reach a point where one could be saved or the other. I turned to Jack and told him he could have his son or he could have his wife but it was too late for him to have them both.

“He wouldn’t choose. He tore at his hair and ran from the room.”

I passed her cup over to her, the chink as I placed it on the table sounding loud in the silence.

She sighed and shook her head. “Witching is a hard path to choose, child. We come to it from a desire to make things right that seem wrong to us. We see the world as it could be, and it seems wrong that it should be less than that, so we seek ways to make it better. It would be nice to think that sometimes there would be thanks for what we do, but most folk are wary of magic, and that’s as it should be. If we all learned the craft and used it for no matter what, the world would be a dark place indeed.

“That same wariness makes them distrustful of us as well. Always ready to believe the worst, like your friend Aaron. But there’s a harder side to the raft as well. Sometimes you have to make the decisions no-one else will make. Decisions where there is no right, but where not making a decision at all would be worse.

“So it was with Sally and her son. If I had left them to it, neither would have survived. Jack couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t choose, so I had to. I chose the boy.

“More than that, I chose both of them. I was younger and far more conceited than I am now, and I was convinced I had the strength to save them both. In fighting so hard for Sally, I made it so that she survived, though it was no kindness she did. If I had left her to die, Jack would have mourned a while and in time he’d have found another to love. Instead he lives with a wild animal that wears the face of his beloved, and he cares for her as penitence for his arrogance and cowardice.”

“Does he deserve to be called those things?”

“He would say so. Arrogance that he insisted he had no need of me until it was too late. Cowardice in running from the choice. People make their own hell, and they can only be drawn from it if they are prepared to accept the love of others.”

“So why did you save her?”

“I thought I could. I was arrogant myself in those days. But witching is finesse more than strength, it’s about finding a balance between two things and using one to push against the other. It’s about preparing the change so that it leans in your favour before you push. Yesterday you asked why I didn’t change you into a woman when you first asked.”

“Yes, you said it was because I wasn’t ready.”

“When you first came to me, you had too much of a man’s influence in you.”

I’d remembered most of this from the other day, but I remained silent and waited. Perhaps she’d say something more on the matter. I sipped at my tea and a short while later was rewarded.

“What makes a man?” she asked. “What makes a woman?”

“I don’t know. I suppose men are strong and independent, silent and solitary, remote and firm, disciplined, while women are soft and gentle, kind and considerate, looking to console, looking to understand, looking to support one another.”

“Is that so? Wouldn’t you call me strong and independent? What was that second one? Silent and solitary? Do you think me a man? And yourself? When you came to me, you were angry and bitter, but you told me yesterday that you used to think about people’s suffering before, when you were a boy.

“These things you describe, we call them masculine or feminine, perhaps because we see them most often or most strongly exhibited in men or women, but they’re traits we all have. Everyone has soft spots or hard ones regardless of whether they be man or woman, and there’s nothing wrong in that.

“Where we start to go wrong is in having once labelled these traits of personality as either male or female, we then think it right to instil those traits into our children. A father will teach his son to be silent and strong, remote and independent and all that, because he believes that is the way a man should be. A mother will take her daughter, no matter how much of a rebellious tomboy she might be, and she will seek to put her in a pretty dress and have her spend time with other ladies, learning to be delicate and refined.

“We are not all made that way though, and what would be so wrong with a man who is sensitive and caring, or a woman who knows to stand and fight for what she believes?

“There is something in human nature that sees it as wrong though, and the struggle to make boys more manly and girls more womanly serves little good. Those who embrace the change would have done so anyway. Those who don’t are twisted out of shape and pushed into becoming something other than the fulfilment of who they naturally are, and that way lies misery.”

“When you came to me, you had suffered a long time at the hands of your peers and of your Father, all of whom saw you as an affront to themselves, because you were a boy becoming a man, and you showed more womanly traits than manly ones. You lived years with your Father’s disappointment and, as many boys have done before you, you tried to become what he wanted you to be. That meant when I first met you, there was a part of you that insisted you had to be a man, whatever the truth.

“You said yourself that you only asked to be made a woman so that I would teach you witchcraft, but there was something inside you that knew there was more of an answer for you in going that way, or you would never have asked. No manly man would ask to be made a woman – it would be too much against his nature.

“Despite this, if I had tried to change you then and there, you would have resisted. When I put you in a dress, you felt ridiculous, despite the fact that you looked quite well in it. It is a part of what your father instilled in you, that to be a woman is to be less than a man.”

“I felt ridiculous because I was ridiculous. A man in a dress looks stupid.”

“Why say so? A woman might dress in the work clothes of a man. She would be chastised for seeking to be other than her nature – because all too many people believe that our nature is written into our physical form – but no-one would think her ridiculous. Why, when a woman chooses to reveal her more manly attributes in the way she dresses, does she appear less ridiculous than when a man tries to show his more womanly ones in the same way?”

“Because men grow to be rough and rugged in their physical form, and to decorate such a course thing in delicate lace looks stupid.”

“Why? It looks different, just as slender, soft skinned arms look different in a man’s course shirt. Why anything more or less than different? And why wrong?

“To my mind there isn’t an answer. Not one that satisfies. We seek to make our children more like ourselves, but for selfish reasons. We do so that we may feel more comfortable in their presence. We do so that they might conform to a shape we believe to be right. Would it not be more loving, more caring, to allow them to grow into what they might be, and seek to adapt ourselves to accept what they become?

“Whatever may be the answer, philosophy asks big questions and brings us to a point where everyone’s answer differs in some degree. There is no changing people’s minds except that they are ready to have them changed.

“Before you would accept becoming a woman, you had to live as one for a while. You had to be seen as one, and you had to experience what it meant to be treated as one. By family, by friends, by lovers. In embracing that, your true nature, which is more that of a woman than a man, and always has been, came to the fore.

“When I saw you last night, you were ready. You radiated your desire – or perhaps your need – to be fully a woman, and then it was just a matter of pushing gently in just the right place.”

She sipped at her drink and put the cup down. “This tea is cold,” she said and sat back into silence.

I filled the kettle and put it on to boil, then set about washing out the pot and cups ready for a fresh brew. I’d never know the old woman to be so talkative before. I wasn’t about to question it; I was just too glad to be receiving answers from her at last.

It took a few minutes to prepare everything, and by then I had the next question lined up.

“So as a man, and with the influence of my father trying to make me more of one, I would have used witchcraft for my own ends.”

Okay, not so much a question as a statement. I poured her cup, then mine, and added little milk to both. She took a sip before responding, unprepared to leave this one to cool before having opportunity to enjoy it.

“There’s something to that. When a man is confronted with a n obstacle, he’ll usually flex his muscles and bring all his strength to bear in order to push it out of the way and order things the way he wants them. A woman will learn early on that most obstacles are too hard to push directly, but can still be moved if eased in the direction they want to go. The solution then comes from subtly changing the direction a problem wishes to go until it more closely matches your own, then encouraging it to go in that direction.

“With the craft, there is a limit to strength, as much in men as in women. Passing the limit has harsh consequences, and may be a reason why there have never been many warlocks – at least not for long.

“Two things come of this. If you had used the craft as a man, you would have pushed against everything you felt was wrong, and in time you would have come across something that pushed back with greater strength, and that would have been an end to you. The other is that by pushing against anything and everything, you would have changed the world to fit what you felt was right, rather than changing it to be better for everyone.

“You’re still rough around the edges, but as you are, you’re more likely to use such power more wisely – more circumspectly.”

“Does that mean you’ll teach me witchcraft now?”

“Oh, didn’t you realise? I already have.”

“What! When?”

“There’s is no great challenge to it, Charlotte. I’ve told you already to seek the balance, to seek to make things lean the way you want before you push, to choose something you can push against, and never to push too hard. To all magic there is a price, so I would also say use it as sparingly as possible, though I doubt you’ll listen to that.”

“But how…”

“… you make the push is something you’ll have to discover for yourself. Again, I’ve already said everyone has the power lying latent inside them, and most leave it well alone. If you want to use it, all you have to do is need it enough and you’ll find a way.

“Your influence on the weather is an unconscious pouring out of your emotions. Somehow in hiding from the harshness you’ve known, you’ve discovered a place inside yourself that is close to the balance point for the elements, and as your feelings lean one way or another, they influence the world. You may find you that’s something you’ll always have with you and you may never control it, but it’s an indication of what you could do if you set your mind to it and find the balance in other situations.”

“But that’s…”

“…not very useful? No, I imagine it’s not, but it’s all I was told, and it’s all any of us are told. You’ll make it work if it matter enough to you.”

“And what of what you did?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you changed me at first, all you did was put me in a dress and brush my hair out long. You did do that didn’t you?”

“Yes and tugged your whiskers back in.”

“But what of Mother and Father, and Lucy and Aaron? What of Karen and Lydia? Was that magic or something more ordinary?”

“Well, if you’d been listening, you’d have heard me say that you use magic as little as you can.”

“So it wasn’t magic. Aaron knew I was a boy all along.”

“Oh no, Aaron owed me his life. I balanced out the debt by helping him to see more clearly the you inside and to ignore what was apparent on the outside. He had no notion of what you were physically, only that he was enchanted by the beautiful person you are on the inside.”

“Enchanted for real then. And Mother and Father and Lucy?”

“Lucy’s young enough not to be affected by grown up ways. She accepts the good that comes to her without questioning it. She woke up one morning to find she had a sister, and she was content enough to accept it.

“Your mother always saw the inner you. Always knew it was there. I may have helped her a little to see it on the surface for a while, though you didn’t make it easy. Your father was out of the way most of the time. He was harder, because he wasn’t willing to see, but I only had to push him a few times.”

“And my friends?”

“Both good souls who regretted what they’d done to you in years gone by. They were willing collaborators, but you made it easy for them. They thought they might have to teach you to be a woman from the very first principles, but it turned out you knew more than any of us suspected.”

“And the village?”

“The villagers kept their distance for the days in which you were becoming. It was easier to keep them away than to help them see. By the time you went to the dance, you were already changed on the outside to match your inner self.”

“But won’t they question how I was once a boy and am now a girl?”

“They may for a while, but you’ll be surprised how much most people consider other people’s problems to be none of their concern.”

“So what happens now?”

“Heavens girl, will the questions never end? I know I said I’d answer you, but haven’t I already done enough?

“Now you get on with your life, only as a girl, as you asked me to make you, as would have brought you contentment a long time ago.”

“And the witching…”

“…will come or it won’t, as may be. It depends on how much you find things matter to you. I wouldn’t hurry it if I were you. It has its own cost, loneliness being perhaps the greatest part.”

I stood, feeling that I had near outstayed my welcome. I gathered the tea things and took them through to the kitchen and washed them.

“You didn’t need to do that,” she said shortly.

“I know,” I said putting some more logs on the fire and stoking it into flame. “It seemed the thing to do is all. Thank you, ma’am, for the tea, and all the more for the answers.”

“It’s Miranda,” she said.

“I’m sorry?”

“My name.” She climbed stiffly to her feet. “Miranda is my name. I’ll thank you not to wear it out, but I’d be pleased for you to use it rather than call me ma’am.”

“Thank you, er, Mi… er, Miranda.” It felt awkward in my mouth, as though it didn’t belong. I scolded myself for foolishness. Of course it belonged.

“Good,” she said. “It’s as well you should know your own mind. Doubt is an enemy in our line of work, and we can little afford it.” She opened the door and ushered me through. “Come again, any time you feel it right.”

“I shall,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Leave your questions behind next time, if you would. I’m more tired now that I have been in many years.”

I smiled, and she smiled in return.

“And mind you don’t tell anyone about this,” she said indicating her face. “I’ve spent too many years cultivating an image among the villagers for you to go telling them anything different.”

Her face turned sour, but she winked as she closed the door on me.

-oOo-

The day brightened as I headed home. My heartache over Aaron remained, but it was much reduced after talking to Miranda.

A squirrel appeared on a nearby tree, bringing a smile to my lips. “Hello,” I called to him, and it bounded down the tree trunk and approached me over the ground. “I have nothing for you, I’m afraid.” I crouched down closer to his height, and looked back into his dark eyes. “Next time, I’ll try and bring something,” I told him. “You must be hungry after the winter.” He twitched a tufty ear and dashed off into the undergrowth.

The birds were singing, and the trees whispering, and by the time I reached the forest’s edge, I was humming gently to myself. I’d let my mind loose to drift about as I’d followed the path home, and, as often comes when I do that, ideas had come to me. I had half a plan in mind for how I might deal with my problems of both the craft and Aaron. I had no idea how it might turn out, or if it might even work at all, but half of something was better than nothing, so I decided to act on it.

Late afternoon, Aaron usually met up with some of his old cronies to kick a pig’s bladder about the field. Now the weather was warming, there would be days when challenges with neighbouring villages would be made and accepted, and days in which the foot ball would be played in our streets or those of a nearby settlement. I’d never understood the fascination of the game, which seemed to be little more than an excuse for a friendly fight among the men folk, but they needed to blow of some steam after the winter. Father had wanted me to join in the team, and it had been one of those frequent sources of disappointment to him that I showed no interest. Now I could stay with the women-folk and join their mild disapproval of the nonsense men got up to in such matters, and I could do so without feeling guilty.

In any case, while Aaron practised whatever skills he needed to survive the idiocy, I thought to pay a visit to his parents. I had no idea what I might find, but if I needed incentive to open up the abilities inside me, then there was nothing more I wished for than to see Aaron’s mother returned to health. I wanted it for his sake and the sake of his parents’ happiness rather as a means of resolving my own heartache, but if Aaron should feel enough of a sense of gratitude that he decide to make up with me, then all the better.

I would have to wait a while though, as the sun was only just reaching its zenith, and I had promised Mother I would make up for my morning’s freedom.

“You seem much improved,” Mother greeted me as I came through the door.

“I am, Mother. I needed this morning, so thank you.”

“Well, any fool could see that. Besides, you didn’t miss much. Some of the boys found their way into the beer last night and were a little the worse for it this morning. It’s been something of an entertainment watching them try and pull down he stalls, muddle headed as they are, but it hasn’t been very productive.”

“It sounds as though you’ve had a fun morning.”

She gave me a withering look. I’d never understood such things before, but now it reminded me I’d given her cause to worry, and she’d spent the morning fretting about me.

“I’m sorry, Mother. Aaron and I broke up last night.”

“I gathered as much from the way he was moping about this morning. It looked as though he’d drunk too much too, though I know better from having kept an eye on him last night.”

“Mother!”

“Be as outraged as you like. A mother worries about her children, and you’re still too young to know how unpleasant men can be, especially when in their cups. Even though I wasn’t expecting such poor behaviour from Aaron, that was still insufficient reason to trust him. You’ll understand well enough when you have a daughter of your own.”

That knocked the wind from my sails. I could now look forward to childbirth and motherhood. The thought of it threatened to panic me, but Mother carried on talking pulling me back from the edge of the unexpected precipice.

“What I’d like to know is what caused the upset.”

“What? Sorry, oh yes. It was the old woman in the forest.”

“Whatever did you have to disagree on over her?”

“It seems she was present at Aaron’s birth.”

“She was present at yours, and mine for that matter. What’s… Oh I see.”

“He blames her for the way his mother turned out.”

“And because you’ve been going to see her…”

“She came to the edge of the forest just before we left for the dance. Mother do you notice anything different about me? Did something change yesterday afternoon?”

“Now you mention it, there is something. I thought it was to do with you and Aaron being together for the first time, but…”

“It’s because she’s all girl now,” Lucy said coming into the kitchen from our room. “Inside and out.”

“What do you mean, sweetheart?”

I don’t know what it was, but something warned me not to push this all the way. I shook my head slightly at Lucy, and she fortunately picked up on it.

“It’s a game we we’ve been playing. Charlie’s been pretending to be a boy, but now she’s as she should be.”

There was so much truth in what she said, my mind wilted in admiration.

“I don’t think I’ll be playing that game anymore Lucy-Loo,” I stooped down to pick her up. She seemed heavier somehow, or maybe I was just weaker. “Is that okay?”

“Yeah. I like you this way much better.”

Mother looked back and forth between us in exasperated incomprehension, and threw up her hands. “Well whatever it was, I’m glad it’s done. Now there some pies I saved from the crowd yesterday we can have for lunch, then we’ll have to go down and help clear up the green.

So that’s what we did. My appetite had returned in force after the mornings self-imposed short rations, and I polished mine off swiftly enough to earn a scolding from Mother. Charles wouldn’t have incurred such wrath, but then boys aren’t meant to be delicate and dainty, are they? I’d actually been told off before now for eating like a squirrel.

I thought of my tufty-eared friend in the forest and made a mental note to take a handful of nuts from the shed when I fed the animals the following morning.

Clearing up the mess was women’s work. The men with their muscles had the shorter job of taking down the stalls they’d erected. It took them half an hour, once the drink had cleared their systems, and then they got to sit around and watch as we then spent two and hours more picking up every last piece of debris.

Charles had escaped both chores in the past. For one I had been too weak to help with the stalls, for the other, a young man among the women hadn’t been welcomed. I understood why now. Women shared a bond with each other that is different to the one they share with men. Working together, we could chat and share secrets, and it made the afternoon fly by. Had there been a man amongst us, or even an older boy as I had been, it would have changed the nature of what we would have felt free to talk about. I found I didn’t resent the division of labour, in fact I would say most of us enjoyed the tedious task of picking up rubbish far more than the men had enjoyed their dismantling job earlier.

I looked up to see Aaron sitting among the men outside the inn, a pint of beer in his hand. His face stiffened when he saw me looking at him, and I wondered how he could be so obstinate. He may have learnt of my foray into the forest in the morning and guessed where I’d been, but was that really enough of a reason to be upset with me? I decided I wasn’t going to feel guilty about doing something which had no wrong to it. He was the one who didn’t understand, and hopefully he would learn his mistake in time.

-oOo-

I saw him leave with Jeremy Pie and a few others a while later, just as we were finishing. I heard Jeremy’s grandfather shout after him, saw the grimace on Jeremy’s face at the words he could hear and I couldn’t. A thought came to me.

“Mother? Would it be alright if I helped Pop’s Pie home just now?”

Mother looked at me a little surprised. “That’s a kind thought, Charlotte. By all means. We’re all but done here as it is.”

I ran up to the old man and introduced myself.

“I know who you are,” he grumbled. “I’ve lived in this village longer ‘n you’ve lived at all. Well, what do you want?”

“I wondered if I might help you home.”

“I have no need for help, thank you all the same,” He struggled to his feet. It was touch and go whether he made it for a while, but it would have been a mistake to help just then. “That ungrateful boy of mine should be coming along, but I can get by without him.”

“Then perhaps be kind enough to accompany me. I was hoping to visit the Carpenters, and I believe they live near you.”

“We’re neighbours, it’s true. Well if you insist on being a bother, I suppose I can tolerate your company a while.”

I took his arm on the side I knew troubled him most and stood firm enough to let him lean on me when he needed. He stumbled once or twice, which had me apologising to cover for him, and him muttering about how clumsy I was. I didn’t expect any thanks from him. He’d been a cussed old git for more years than I could remember, and I didn’t expect him to change just because a pretty young woman – and yes I acknowledged that I was pretty now – came along to help him home.

We reached his house and I eased him into his chair.

“Thank you for seeing me this far, Mr Pie. I wondered if I might help you off with your boots, just by way of gratitude.”

“Well, if it’ll make you feel better,” he sighed as though in exasperation, “I suppose I wouldn’t mind so much.”

So I knelt down and eased his laces as open as I could, then slipped the boots off slowly, one after the other.

“Jeremy usually gets me a mustard bath,” he said. “Bowl’s under the sink in the kitchen. Powder’s there too.”

I looked around. The fire was banked and glowing gently. I added wood to it and stoked it up so it burned more merrily, then I took the kettle out back to their pump to fill it. While the water was heating, I took the bowl and powder and asked how much to use.

“I don’t know do I?” he said querulously. “Just put in a good shake and see how that does.”

I check the packet for instructions and, finding none, I did as he suggested. I added a small amount of cold water then waited for the kettle to show signs of steam, then I added hot till it was as much as I could stand.

“This may be a little hot,” I said and eased one foot over to the bowl.

“Aggghh,” he said as his foot came in contact. “No that’s just right. Let it settle then.”

I did as I was bid and followed with the other foot.

“Can I make you some tea while I’m here? The kettle’s near boiled.”

“That would be kind of you,” he said, his normally gristly demeanour crumbling beneath my ministrations and the relief the foot bath was giving him. “There’s some burdock root in a jar near the teapot. If you can grind up about half an inch and add it to some hot water, that would be more than kind.”

I swung the kettle back over the flames and set about the rest of the preparations. I found a pestle and mortar on a high shelf I could barely reach, and I used it to grind the burdock root to a fibrous mat, which I dropped it into a chipped mug. The kettle was boiling by then, so I poured the hot water over the root and passed the concoction to the old man. He took a swig and made a face before leaning back into his chair. I found I could all but see the pain leaving his joints. Bright, sharp, jagged edged pain, dwindling but never quite dying.

“Is there any more I can do for you, Mr Pie?” I asked.

“No, dear. You’ve done more than enough thank you. My grandson could learn a thing or two from you.”

I nodded and smiled my appreciation of his words and turned to leave.

“You might come by again tomorrow if you’ve a mind to.” The words were quiet and slurred by the blissful lessening of his suffering.

“Yes sir.” I closed the door on him gently.

-oOo-

The Carpenters lived next door as Mr Pie had said. Jack Carpenter hadn’t been at the work party as he was home tending to his wife. All the village knew his troubles and no-one expected him to stray far from home. I tapped on the door, and shortly afterwards a haggard face with deep, dark bags under the eyes looked out through the crack that opened up.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes. Hello, Mr Carpenter. I’m Charlotte Thatcher. I’m a friend of Aaron’s…”

“He’s not here right now. You could try to call again just before sundown.”

“It wasn’t him I came to see, sir. We’re, er, we’re in the middle of a disagreement at present, which is why I came now when I knew he’d be out. I wanted to talk to you and your, er, your wife.”

“You do know about my wife?”

“Yes sir. I… just wanted to visit… to, er, meet you both.”

Now that I was here, it sounded lame. I was about to apologise and leave when Mr Carpenter swung the door open and waved me in.

Most everything in the house was made of wood. It made sense for a carpenter, I suppose, but there was more to it than that. The windows were boarded up, no sign of glass in the panes, the ornaments were wood, none of them sharp, and none of them breakable. There was nothing of value in the room, and there were gouge marks in the walls and furniture. Sally Carpenter sat in an easy chair, tatty, stuffed pillows beneath and behind, and a rug thrown over her emaciated frame.

“Don’t get too close. She’s alright now, but strangers disturb her, and I wouldn’t be able to guarantee your safety if she got riled.”

I sat down on a nearby sofa and looked across at Aaron’s mother, or what was left of her at least. Her skin was sallow, her cheeks sunken, her eyes dull. Most of what remained was skin and bone. It seemed impossible to imagine she had the strength to move at all, let alone cause the damage evident around the room and the fingernail scratches down both of Mr Carpenter’s arms.

“You satisfied?” His voice had taken on a note of disapproval, probably because of my undisguised fascination in his wife.

“Erm, no sir. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. I didn’t know what to expect when I came here, only that I had to see. I was hoping for something, er, something more I suppose. From me that is, not you or Mrs Carpenter.”

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

“No, sir, neither am I. I wonder if you’d mind if I sat here a while, sir.”

“I’ll fetch you a tumbler of water. I’m afraid we’ve little enough else. I’m spending more time looking after her these days, and I can’t get much work done. Aaron helps a bit, but carpentry’s not his thing. Overall we get by, but you didn’t come here for a sob story, though, did you?”

“No. Some water would be appreciated, thank you, and if you think it’s alright, I’d be glad to sit with her for a while, so you can do some work.”

Mr Carpenter came back with a wooden tumbler, two thirds filled with murky water. Sally’s eyes watched the cup as I raised it to my lips and drank down half of it. It was silty, as though from a well in need of digging out, but other than that it was cool and pleasantly refreshing.

“Thank you,” I said and settled back to observing. Now that I’d taken my drink and was simply holding the cup, Sally’s eyes had reverted to the blank emptiness I’d seen when I first arrived.

“Well,” Mr Carpenter said, “if you think you’ll be alright for a while, there is some work I need to get done. I’ll be just outside. Call for any reason. I mean any reason. If she acts any different from this, call for me. You will call, won’t you?”

“Er, yes sir. I’ll call. Just as you said.”

He went out through the back door, leaving me in darkness with his wife.

I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like growing up in this house. Watching the slow degradation of the person I saw in front of me now. I wasn’t sure what I had expected of the place, but certainly not this. Deep inside me, I felt the longing to make it right, to see Sally carpenter restored to wholeness. It gnawed inside me like a maggot in an apple, but it made no difference. Pop Pie’s pain I had seen, but I couldn’t see beyond the surface here. All I saw was a shrivelled shell of a human being, all but empty of life.

She moved. A bony finger raised to point at her cracked lips, and she made quiet grunting noises. Outside, Mr Carpenter had just started sawing. I didn’t want to disturb him so soon.

I pointed to the cup I was holding. “You want some water?”

She nodded slowly, indistinctly. I stood and approached, unsure if I should.

“Do you mind that it’s the same cup I’ve used?” I asked. “Only I’m not sure I should leave you, and I don’t know where your water comes from.”

She pointed at her lips and moaned again. I stepped forward and bent beside her, raising the cup so she could drink.

Like a snake she sprang. Her fingers were around my throat and the cup spinning across the floor before I could react.

“You want to take him from me.” She hissed. “You’ve come to steal him.”

“No,” I gasped, the bony fingers surprisingly strong around my neck. “Your… son…”

“My son. What of my son?”

The fingers pressed in and I tried with all my strength to prize them open. They wouldn’t move.

“Can’t… breath…” I gurgled.

“Of course you can’t. I’m going to choke you where you stand. You shan’t take him from me.”

Blackness threatened around the edges of my vision. I closed my eyes, and saw.

-oOo-

An inky darkness swirled in and around her like smoke. Unthinking, unfeeling, unreasoning, it was little more than the base animal part that exists in each of us. Fighting for survival, caring only for self, attacking any and everything it could, and then deep, deep within, beyond the darkness and the turmoil, a tiny but still brilliant spark.

I reached for it. It put me in mind of the time Jeremy Pie had pushed me into the river just above the weir. A poor swimmer at best, I had been swept over and caught in the churning waters beneath the dam. I had swum with all my fading strength to reach through turmoil. With the last of my strength, I had reached as far as I could and found a hand waiting to pull me out.

The smoke twisted and weaved, pushing me in all directions, and I had not the strength of fledgling chick, but I pressed on. I could feel my consciousness slipping from me, but I would not let it go, would not let myself be defeated.

“Mrs Carpenter,” I yelled as I reached the bright pinprick of consciousness.

“It hurts,” she cried. “Don’t let me go back. It hurts too much.”

“No,” I shouted back, the churning, dark animal instincts which filled her brain tore at me like a gale. “The pain is gone. You have a son. A fine, strong son to be proud of.”

“No pain?”

“None. It’s gone. So much time has passed. Your husband misses you, your son misses you. Come back with me.”

“She said there was a cost.”

“Mine to pay,” I said.

What is offered?

It wasn’t a voice. More an awareness of the balance of the situation, and what might be done to shift it a little. I could see Mrs Carpenter’s pitiful life hanging out to one side, leaning against… something huge.

“All the pain and hardship I suffered as a child. Forgiven. Forgotten.” I shouted. The dark storm tore at me. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could endure.

Not enough.

I could see it wasn’t enough. This needed something immense.

“My love for Aaron. His for me.”

Not accepted. Love exists or not outside of the balance.

“That which makes me a woman then. Let me be turned back to a man.” That had to be big enough. It was something I valued more than my life itself, now that I had it.

Not accepted. The balance wouldn’t hold. You’d find a way to change back.

There was truth to that. Now I’d tasted this life, I wouldn’t rest until I could have it back.

“Then what is enough?”

A life is owed. The child or the mother.

“No!” The voice came from the bright pinprick consciousness of Mrs Carpenter.

“No!” It was another voice, calling from far off. I recognised it dimly through the fading greyness of my mind. “The child’s debt was paid to me.”

A life is owed.

“And I will pay,” the resolve in the new voice came through like a wave.

Accepted.

“No,” I cried. “Take my life instead. Let it be mine.”

The bargain is made. It is done.

Consciousness fled from me. The storm in Mrs Carpenter’s mind tore apart, seeming to tear me with it. The last I saw was the brilliance of Mrs Carpenter’s consciousness growing like a bubble rising from the depths.

-oOo-

“Stupid girl. I told you to stay away from her. What were you thinking?”

Not the most encouraging of words to come round to, but at least I had come round. I tried sitting up, but a strong hand held me down onto the sofa.

“Whoa, whoa. Where do you think you’re going?”

I tried to speak, but only managed a vague whisper. I reached up to my throat, which was tender, and managed to massage a little life back into it.

“I need to go,” I managed to whisper hoarsely.

“Oh no,” he said, keeping his hand on my shoulder. “I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to go anywhere just at the moment. What were you thinking? I told you not to go near her.”

“She asked for a drink,” I answered, waving vaguely in the direction the beaker had flown.”

“She asked for a…” He looked angry for a moment. “How could she? She can’t even talk.”

“She pointed at her lips,” I croaked, “and moaned. Then she kept pointing between the beaker and her lips until I understood. I asked if she wanted a drink, and she nodded her head.”

Mr Carpenter looked over his shoulder at his wife, sitting slumped in her chair, then back at me.

“And she can talk.” My voice was getting stronger with use, but it hurt to speak and it continued to sound rough and ragged. “She accused me of trying to steal you and told me she would choke the life out of me.”

“I’m sorry, I had no idea she had such guile. She’s never spoken so much as a word to me in nigh on twenty years. I should never have left you with her. It’s as well you cried out when you did or I wouldn’t have known to come.”

“What happened?” I didn’t remember crying out. With Sally’s fingers around my throat, I wasn’t even sure I could have made a noise.

“I’d just finished sawing through a piece when I heard your voice cry, ‘No!’. I dropped the wood and my tools and run back in here to find her with her hands around your neck.”

“Can you help me sit up please?” I asked, beginning to move again. Asking for help worked where pushing hadn’t. ‘Find ways of changing the balance your favour,’ Miranda had said, and it worked. Mr Carpenter moved the hand he’d used to hold me down, and with it lifted me into a sitting position. Sally was leant over awkwardly in her chair, seemingly unconscious. “What did you do to her?” I asked, horrified.

“Well, I couldn’t let her throttle you. I hit her about the side of the head with my fist.”

“She was letting go.” My voice grated and I swallowed to try and ease the discomfort. “I would have been alright.”

“How can you know that? You don’t know her.” His voice was filled with anguish that went beyond the regret he felt for my injuries. “You haven’t lived with her for twenty years. You don’t know what she can do. You’re lucky she didn’t scratch you deep enough to scar,” he turned his head to show me pale parallel lines running down the side of his neck, “or try to gouge your eyes out.”

“Wait till she wakes then.” I’d settled on a gentle whisper for my voice. It might be several days before I could speak clearly again. I dreaded to think what the bruising looked like. I suspected I would be wearing a scarf for at least a week. “Do you think I could have another drink of water please? My throat really hurts.”

“Oh no,” he said, shaking his head. “You think I’m about to leave you alone with her again? I may have made a mistake just now, but that was only because I needed to get this work done. I’ve been fool enough for one day, and I won’t let you alone till I’m well and satisfied that you’re not harmed more than the little I see.”

“I really could use a drink sir,” I said , placing a hand on his wrist. “You’re right, I am anxious to leave. I think a friend of mine needs me now, but I’m not sure I could stand at the moment, much less run to her, so you have my word I’ll not try to escape if you’d just be so kind as to fetch me a cup of water. And if Mrs Carpenter should rouse while you’re gone, I’ll stamp my feet.”

He relented and withdrew into what I presumed was the kitchen. Once he was out of the room, I levered myself into a more upright position and examined Sally more closely.

A bruise was forming on her right temple which had me dreading how livid might be the ones on my own neck. She was very still, and I worried for a moment that Mr Carpenter might have struck her too hard. I leaned forward and eased her back into a more comfortable position. She started breathing more easily, and it seemed the spark I’d sensed before was glowing brightly inside her. As far as I could tell, the darkness which had consumed her for so long had receded.

“Father, what’s happening?” Aaron’s voice sounded from outside the house making me start. I glanced at the window wondering how long I’d been unconscious.

“In here son.” Mr Carpenter chose that moment to reappear with a fresh tumbler of water. I accepted it gratefully and sipped at it slowly, straining it through my teeth in an effort to filter out the silt.

“You!” Aaron had apparently caught sight of me. I was turned away from him and too exhausted to look up. “I thought I told you to stay away from my family.”

Mr Carpenter looked between his son and me with the bewildered incomprehension of parents the world over.

I kept my peace and continued to sip at my water. The cool liquid was doing wonders for my bruised throat, and I had no desire to risk my vocal chords further by entering an argument. Fortunately for me, Mr Carpenter took my side.

“Leave her be son,” he said. “She’s been through something of an ordeal just now. Your mother attacked her.”

“Something which wouldn’t have happened if she done as I asked.” He grew tired of me apparently ignoring him and moved around into my field of view. The bruises on my neck must have been quite a sight because the colour drained from his face when he saw them.

“I wanted to meet your family,” I whispered. “I wanted to see if I could help.”

“How could you help?” Aaron’s anger remained. The sight of my injuries hadn’t quenched the fires that much it seemed. “She’s been this way for twenty years, since the day I was born. What did you think you could do that might change matters?”

“I don’t know. There are lots of things I don’t know, which unless I at least try to do something about them, I continue not to know. At the very least I hoped to offer your father some reprieve from constantly having to care for your mother.”

“Yeah, and how did that work out?” It was a well-aimed shot. Despite the shock of my recent experience, I blushed hotly.

“It could have gone better,” I said. I put the cup down and made to stand. “I’m sorry to have bothered you, Mr Carpenter. I’ll leave now, if you don’t mind.”

Mr Carpenter put out his hand again and kept me I my seat. “I would still like you to stay a while. You weren’t unconscious long, but I already have enough on my conscience without risking your welfare too.”

Aaron turned away, evidently frustrated, then spun back towards his father.

“I came back early for you, Father. So you could get on and finish those roof beams you were preparing.”

“And as you can see, our priorities have changed. Once I’m sure your friend is alright, we’ll let her go on her way, and you can watch your mother while I work. I’ve already been able to make a start on it, thanks to Charlotte.”

“Fine! What would you have me do now I’m here?”

“You could start dinner if you don’t mind.”

Aaron made to storm through to the kitchen, but paused when Sally moaned. In an instant, both he and his father were by her side. For a moment I was forgotten.

“Jack?” Mrs Carpenter said, turning his way. “Whatever happened to you? You look so old.”

Both father and son sat stupefied. I hadn’t experienced the past two decades, so I couldn’t appreciate the full extent of the miracle those words represented.

“And why does my head hurt so badly?” She raised a hand to the tender bruise on her temple.

I decided it was time I left. Jack was already showing signs of recovering from his shock and it seemed things would work out. The three of them had a lot of catching up to do, and a lot of healing. I would only get in the way. Besides I was worried for Miranda.

-oOo-

I made it halfway across the village before Aaron caught me up. He sat upon a horse that twitched uneasily, as though it were unused to carrying a rider.

“Matt Carter’s horse,” he said by way of explanation. “If you’ll ride with me, we’ll get there all the quicker.”

I’d never ridden on a horse before, either as rider or passenger, but this was no time to raise objections. I was already woozy from shock, something which had only grown worse after the short walk, and I wasn’t even sure if I could make it to Miranda’s cottage. I held out a hand and he swung me up behind him. The manoeuvre almost cost me my lunch, as the world whirled about me for a few spins. Aaron goaded the animal into motion before I could get myself settled and we entered the forest at a fast trot.

The journey passed in silence, apart from the noise of the horse’s hooves upon the path. Every now and again I’d point out a path and Aaron would take it. No words spoken. Nothing to say. The horse remained calm on the forest track, and we made it to our destination in a very short while.

I swung down to the ground before the horse had fully stopped and staggered drunkenly towards the door. Miranda was seated in her usual chair by the fire, but it had fallen to cinders, with very little life left in it.

“Miranda?” I called as I knelt beside the old woman. Her hands were rough as parchment and cold as winter.

“Hello, dear,” she gave me a weak grin. “I hoped you’d come by.”

“Why did you do it?” I asked her desperately. “It was my bargain. Mine to resolve.”

“Really. And how would you have settled the matter?”

“I don’t know. I’d have thought of something.”

“A life was owed, Charlotte. Whose would you have offered? A life freely given mind, not taken. Taking only transfers the debt.”

“I told you, I’d have sorted something out.”

“Well the way I see it, you didn’t have many options. You could have suggested Sally, and I’m sure she’d have been ready to make the sacrifice. She was ready twenty years ago, but I wasn’t about to let her go. Too arrogant I was. Too arrogant by half, and I caused nothing but pain.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was like I told Jack, one life or the other, but I couldn’t save both. He couldn’t choose and I wouldn’t. Some lessons you learn the hard way, Charlotte, but there’s no room in witchcraft for arrogance. You get things wrong and the price is too high. Worse is someone else has to pay.

“I saved them both. At least I thought I did. I kept Sally from the edge, but it took all my strength and rested on an imbalance which has kept her buried inside herself all this time. I didn’t count on her being so afraid. She hid too deep and too well, till all that was left on the surface was the animal in her.

“Twenty years I’ve wanted a way to make things right, but you don’t go where you’re not wanted, girl. Push against the balance and the cost is too high. I’ve waited all this time for a way back, and it never come. I wanted to make things right, but I had no way to do it. Not until now.”

She closed her eyes and I thought she’d gone, but she was only resting, conserving her strength. Her chest rose and feel with slow, shallow breaths.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Are you saying you planned this?”

She smiled and managed a half-hearted laugh. “Planned is such a… an organised word. You can’t plan with people. They always end up doing something unexpected. No, not planned, but I’ll admit I was ready in case you did something like this.”

“You said I’d find a way when something mattered enough. You knew nothing mattered more to me than that Aaron’s family should be whole again. You knew I’d go to them.”

Her mouth twitched with the shade of a smile and I caught her looking past my shoulder. I turned my head slightly and caught sight of a shadow in the doorway.

“Mattered enough isn’t the same as mattered the most. You care enough for Papa Pie. You saw his pain. It wouldn’t have taken much to do something about it.

“You might have offered him up to the balance, you know? He’s been in pain a lot of years, and he’s been a neighbour to the Carpenters for long enough to know how hard their life has been. If you’d asked he’d have probably agreed. It would have been a relief to him to see the end of his suffering, and he’d have been glad to do something good with the last of his life.”

“That doesn’t sit right though. I can do something about his arthritis, and I doubt he’d be so quick to give up anything if he knew he could be free of those aches.”

“You may be right. But who then? As I say, Sally would have gone, but what would have been the benefit? Sure, Jack and his son would have been released from caring for what their mother had become, but they’d have been left with a void. Not just her passing, but the senselessness of the past twenty years. They’d not thank you for it.

“Jack might have gone if you’d asked him, or Aaron, but no two of them would have been able to accept such a sacrifice from the third.”

“Then I’d have gone. If there was no other choice, I’d have offered myself.”

She closed her eyes and leaned back. “I believe you would, dear heart, I believe you would. And what a waste that would have been. A young girl like you, so full of life and promise, to give it up at the first hurdle. I’d have thought better of you, but no worse.”

“What do you mean?”

“It does you credit that you’d take such responsibility for your actions. It’s more than I did, and for that you’ll be a better witch than I ever was. You can know all there is to know and still not use it well. The greatest of our kind are the ones with strength here,” she reached out a shaky digit and pointed at my breast, “and you, my girl, have strength of heart.

“On the other hand, it does no good to squander what you have for so little…”

“So little! We’re talking about a woman’s life here, and the way it affects her husband and her son.”

“And you will come across a great many more situations where so much is at stake. You can only give your life once, Charlotte, and you can do a great deal more than you know by keeping it, at least for now. When you give it up, if indeed you ever have to, make sure it’s for something truly worthwhile.”

“And what makes it any more right that you should give up yours for this and I shouldn’t?”

“Because this was my bargain before it was ever yours, dear. My mess to clean up. My price to pay.

“Besides, I used Aaron against his will in helping you, and taking is a debt transferred. Twenty years ago, the life owed was his mother’s or his. I took his debt, and now I choose to pay it.”

“But I don’t want to lose you. There’s so much you have to teach me.”

“Oh I have to, do I?” She was laughing again, with her eyes since everything else was fading rapidly, but she was laughing still. “I don’t think I do. You asked two things of me and I’ve have given you them both. What else there is to learn is your adventure, and I wouldn’t deprive you of a moment of it.

“Don’t be sad for me child. I’ve had a good life – for all that it’s been lonely. If you were to learn from me, yours would likely have ended the same. With your great heart though, I rather suspect you’ll find a way to do as well, and better, than I ever managed, and without having to live apart as I’ve done.

“There are very few things in my life I’ve regretted, and you’ve given me a way to make right the worst of them, at least in part. You’ve given me company in my last days, and you’ve given me hope for those I’m leaving behind. This is as good an end as I could want and perhaps better than I deserve.

“Now if you would be so kind, the fire could do with a stoke and I’d very much like a cup of tea.”

You can’t ignore a request like that. My head was filled with so many questions they were tripping over one another, and I would never have another chance to ask any of them, but I wasn’t here for me, or so I told myself. I added wood to the fire and stoked it until it was blazing fiercely, then set about the business of making tea.

The shadow in the doorway hadn’t moved, so I added a third cup to the tray. With the tea poured, I passed Miranda her cup and stood to take one to Aaron. Miranda shook her head and nodded to the chair opposite. I sat.

“I left something for you on the mantelpiece,” she said, her voice barely a whisper, and lifted the cup to her lips.

I looked above the fire and saw the brush she’d used on my hair less than a week and more than a lifetime ago. I smiled, set down my cup and stood to retrieve it.

It was only when I stood that I noticed the folded sheet of paper behind it. My name was scrawled on it in an unsteady hand. I picked it up, opened it, read it.

My Dearest Charlotte,

I have no way of expressing how great has been my pleasure in knowing you, even for so short a while. If I have one sorrow, it is that we did not have longer to spend together. In leaving this world, I do so knowing that at least one small corner of it rests in fair and competent hands. Trust yourself; you are far stronger than you know.

This cottage has passed from one of our kind to the next for more generations than I care to count. It has become more than mere bricks and mortar over the long years, and as I pass it into your care, know that it will give you whatever you need, whenever you need it.

Live well, be happy, and thank you.

Miranda

I turned, words of protest forming on my lips, but she was gone. Her teacup sat empty in her lap, and her eyes stared sightlessly from a relaxed and contented face.

-oOo-

I carried two cups of tea outside and offered one to Aaron.

“She’s gone,” I said simply.

“Before coming here I might have said, ‘good riddance’,” he said, “but that hardly seems appropriate anymore.”

I sipped at my tea, then blew across it. I’d never been able to drink it hot.

“She caused your family a lot of heartache,” I said, leaning against the doorpost. “I’m sure she’d understand if you were still mad at her.”

He shook his head. “I’ve been angry too long. Besides, today’s not a day for anger or hatred. “He turned a hopeful and apologetic smile in my direction. “I need to say sorry to you, Charlotte, and much more besides. What you did for my mother…”

“What I did for you mother was no less than should have been done a long time ago,” I interrupted him.

“It’s not something just anyone could do.” His voice turned quite. “She could have,” he jerked his head towards the cottage, the merrily crackling fire its only voice, “but we never let her. I’m not sure if we’d have let you had you had you not come of your own will.”

Perhaps that was something I needed to learn for myself rather than take Miranda’s word for it. Perhaps you didn’t have to wait to be asked before helping.

“How is she?” I asked. “I left before I could tell. It seemed best to leave you alone.”

“She was eating when I left.” He smiled at the memory. “Not being force fed as usual, but eating and as well as you might expect. It was her idea that I should come after you. She also would like you to visit soon if you would be so kind. Father suggested I borrow the horse and said not to come back too soon. I guess they have a lot of catching up to do.”

“How much did you overhear?” I asked, changing the subject completely.

He paused, his cup almost to his lips.

“Most of it I imagine. The first I heard was the old lady saying she’d not been ready to let my mother go. Something about being arrogant. I guess I heard pretty much everything from then. Did you mean what you said about nothing mattering as much as my family being whole, and about giving up your life for us?”

I ducked my head. That wasn’t a question I felt ready to answer.

“I wouldn’t have wanted you to,” he said. “Give up your life I mean. I… I think I’m in love with you.”

That brought my head back up with a snap. I looked across at him, staring deep into his eyes for any hint he might be joking. Old habits die hard I suppose, but it was more than that.

“Even if I end up being the village’s next witch?”

He shifted his gaze until he was looking into my eyes. There was softness there, and truth, hope and vulnerability, abandonment and acceptance.

He didn’t need to answer with words. His lips met mine and I had all the answer I needed.

I thought of the old lady, her body still cooling inside the cottage. I decided she would have approved, but still I felt a little awkward about it. I took the empty cup from his hand and turned to enter the cottage.

“Would you help me to bury her?” I asked.

“I owe her that much at least,” he answered, and followed me in through the door.

-oOo-

There were two spades in the scullery off the kitchen and a wooden crate, large enough to serve as a coffin. I thought of the letter and those words towards the end – it will give you whatever you need whenever you need it

There was a soft patch of bare earth in the garden and between us we managed to dig a serviceable grave. I will own that Aaron did most of the work, but only because there wasn’t room for more than one to work in the grave at a time, and once started, he refused to cede his place until it was completely dug.

Miranda had always seemed such a robust person – larger than life in so many respects – so it was a shock to discover how little she weighed. Makeshift coffin and all, it was a simple enough task for the two of us to lower her into her final resting place.

“Do you have any words?” He asked me as we looked down on the splintered wood.

I’d been thinking on just that while Aaron worked and, though there was no-one to hear them but the two of us and the birds, it seemed right to speak out what I’d composed.

“We come into this world alone,” I said, “and we leave it alone. Not many of us have the courage and strength to live alone as well, or to give of ourselves while we’re here. Go in peace, Miranda, and may you find rest and comfort at journey’s end.”

They didn’t sound quite so wonderful when said out loud, but when all’s said and done, what mattered most is the sentiment behind them. We shovelled loosed dirt onto her remains and continued until the hole was filled leaving only a small mound behind.

“So what will you do with your cottage in the forest?” Aaron asked me as we headed inside to clean the tools and freshen up.

“I don’t know,” I said. “The forest is a good place for it, I suppose. Good for herbs and roots and the like, but I could wish it were closer to the village. Perhaps even right on the edge of the forest, near my parents’ house. I’d rather not live apart from everyone the way she did.”

We finished cleaning the loam off the spades and Aaron put them back where we’d found them while I washed my hands and face clean.

“So what will you do?” he asked.

I relinquished the sink and picked up a towel to dry myself.

“I’m not sure. It would be wrong not to use the cottage at all. The letter said it’s been passed from witch to witch for a very long time, but I hate the idea of someone having to travel all this way to find me when they need me.”

“It’s not really big enough for more than one person either,” he mused, “or were you thinking of going it alone?”

I threw my towel at him, but he caught it easily and used it to dry his own hands and face.

“I suppose we could always explore and see just how big the place is,” I said. “I’ve only been upstairs the once. I only saw Miranda’s bedroom, but there might be more space up there somewhere.”

It seemed wrong somehow, almost disrespectful to be traipsing around the house so soon after its previous occupant had been laid to rest, but it didn’t seem right to leave the place just yet either. I climbed the stairs with Aaron following on my heels, and stepped into the small bedroom I’d used to change on my first visit.

At least I thought it was the same room. It seemed larger than I remembered, with a brass bedsteaded double bed and a large wardrobe against one wall. The room was still gabled, but whereas it had seemed cramped before – and I was sure it had only been large enough for a single bed – this one was comfortably large enough for the two of us together.

The long standing mirror was where I remembered it, but I didn’t recall the dressing table and stool. I pulled open the wardrobe, expecting to see Miranda’s black dresses and cloaks, but instead found an array of dresses in what seemed to be my size. They were colourful too, much more in keeping with my preferred style. None of them were of the finest weave or that richly decorated, but they were pretty and serviceable and just what I would have wanted. I held one up in front of me and stood before the mirror, thinking about changing into it then and there. I mean after all, my work dress was smeared with dirt and damp with perspiration.

“Er, Charlie. I think you should come and see this.” Aaron called me from the bedroom window.

“What?” I asked distractedly.

“Er, isn’t that your parents’ house over there?”

-oOo-

The cottage will give you whatever you need, whenever you need it. More than that I think. I’m not sure I actually needed it to be on the edge of the forest, or to have a bedroom and a bed big enough to share. I certainly didn’t need enough of a wardrobe to have a different dress for each day of the week, or a herb store fully stocked with dried plants of all kinds, all labelled and sorted by common use, or the illustrated book on herb lore describing far more than I knew about plant identification and uses, when and where to gather them and how to prepare them. It was all there though, and I felt certain that if in the future I might want, say, a nursery, an additional room would appear upstairs. It was an astonishing gift, and not one to be squandered, not that I’m sure the house would have let me abuse its gifts.

Miranda’s letter was enough for the village council to enter a deed of ownership in my name into the village records, and no-one seemed to question its sudden arrival at the edge of the village. I suppose it was a witch’s cottage, so the fact it wasn’t dark and sinister or scarily unusual was already bonus enough.

News of Sally Carpenter’s recovery had already swept through the village when Aaron and I stepped out of the cottage and into the village street. Every person in the village had abandoned whatever they had been doing and surrounded the carpenter residence twelve deep by the time we reached it. Included in the rumour was that I had brought about the recovery. I honestly don’t know how such news gets about so quickly, especially given that the only people who knew were Aaron, myself, Sally and Jack, and as far as I knew none of us had spoken to anyone else, but then rumour and gossip is a sort of magic with rules all its own. The crowd parted as Aaron and I approached, and the constant susurration of whispered speculation died down to an utter stillness as we reached the front door.

I turned to the crowd, aware than my status within the village had changed. “I’m sure you can imagine,” I said, my voice still something of a course rasp, “how long and difficult an ordeal Sally Carpenter has endured these past twenty years. She is much improved, and I understand has been eating and speaking with her husband this afternoon. Your concern does you credit,” yeah right, “but I doubt she will be strong enough to show herself any time soon. The family needs time to come to terms with the change. Time and space. So if you would all be so good as to allow them a little of both…”

“Is it true you wrestled the spirit of the evil witch out of her?” an unidentified voice from the crowd shouted.

Some people have a knack for saying the wrong thing at just the wrong time. I turned in the direction of the voice, limbs rigid and eyes blazing. I knew Miranda had actually cultivated a wicked witch image of herself, but it offended me deeply that so many people who had received so much good from her could still think of her so poorly. A dark shadow enveloped the house and the crowd as thick, black clouds boiled into existence overhead, and a brilliant column of actinic light arced out of the heavens with a deafening crash, splitting a tree on the edge of the not too distant village green.

The violence of the event brought me back to myself. Miranda’s explanation of how my mood seemed to affect the weather rang in my mind, along with the echoes of the thunder. Necessity gave me the control I needed and I reigned in my rage before the next lightning bolt had the chance to build. Ignorance, even such ignorance as this, did not deserve the terror and destruction it seemed my anger had the capacity to unleash. The clouds receded as quickly as they had come. The crowd stared at me, awe filled and terrified.

“I will hear no-one speak ill of the old lady.” I couldn’t raise my voice much above a whisper, but it sounded all the more menacing for that. “She was a friend to me and, though none of you realise it, a friend to you all too. Test me on this and I may not be able to contain my anger another time. Now I’ve asked you to leave this family in peace. Don’t make me tell you.”

The crowd evaporated almost as quickly as the cloud. The sun shone down on empty streets and Aaron and I stepped into the house.

-oOo-

I visited Sally daily over the weeks that followed. She made a remarkably swift recovery, for which I may be partially responsible, though I’m not sure. With each visit, I willed strength into her, but I think most of her rapid return to health came from the love and attention Jack and Aaron lavished upon her. She ate well and her body filled back out into that of an attractive woman a year or two older than my mother. Eventually she felt strong enough to venture outside and she and Jack took a walk around the village together, greeting everyone who approached them. It was a gruelling first excursion, but it laid to rest many rumours and brought the Carpenters back into the normal life of the village all the more rapidly as a result.

I visited Pop Pie daily as well. A mixture of home-made herbal medicines and my gifts brought about just as astonishing a change in him. Within days he was moving around the village with a far more sprightly gait, and his mood mellowed to the point where Jeremy started spending time with him, more through desire than duty. People started to comment about the old birch tree that stands behind their house, at how it seemed to become gnarled and twisted overnight. A rumour went around the village that I had transferred all the old man’s pain into the tree. I never spoke to confirm or deny it, but I did give Jeremy and his grandfather special instructions to tend and care for the tree as best they could. Regardless of whether or not it was involved in the cure, a witch needs her reputation and this was just the sort of thing to add to the mystique surrounding me.

In that respect there was no major shortage of stories. Sally Carpenter’s recovery stood at the top of the list, followed closely by my evident influence on the weather. The sudden appearance of the cottage at the edge of the village, people’s inability to remember me as a little girl although they all knew I had been born and raised there, Pop Pie’s recovery along with the comments about the tree, all that and a hundred other stories, most of which grew from nowhere without any help from me, all helped to establish me as the new witch. My voice never fully recovered from Sally’s attempt to strangle me, something for which she never felt fully able to forgive herself, but which afforded me with yet another distinguishing feature that established me in my new role.

I discovered Miranda’s reasons for choosing to live apart from the village as, in next to no time, I became the focus of attention for everybody’s smallest problem. It was a revelation just how small minded people could be, and on certain days I would all but lose patience with the pettiness of it all. That summer was marked by the number of thunderstorms that built rapidly and dissipated just as swiftly, and in time people made the link between the inclement weather and the stupidity and selfishness of the requests they brought to me. By the time the leaves were turning they had learnt not to trouble me with trivia, though I made it clear I would hear any request made. From time to time a genuine need crossed my threshold and I found myself with a new challenge to face.

I moved into the cottage the day I replaced Miranda as the village witch, as seemed only right, but I continued to feed my family’s animals and to join them for breakfast. Lucy was delighted to have a room to herself, especially as I lived close enough to visit at the drop of a hat, and visit she did, often. She usually brought some titbit or other to feed to the tufty-eared red squirrel that took up residence in the tree behind the cottage. Between Lucy and me, he did well off us, and grew fat from our generosity.

Aaron continued to court me through the summer and into the winter. The outcome was forgone, but I didn’t see that as a good enough reason to deny him the thrill of the chase, or me any of its benefits. At the midwinter’s festival, he dropped to one knee and proposed, in full view of the village. I agreed of course, and, think of it what you will, but mere seconds afterwards it began to snow a million brilliant crystalline shards shimmering in the moonlight.

We were married in the spring, with the blessings of both his parents and mine, and the well-wishes of everyone in the village. Both Karen and Lydia stood with me as maids of honour, but then what is the good of being a witch if you can’t break with tradition when it suits you? Even the cottage signalled its approval by increasing the size of all its rooms and adding a cattle-shed, complete with two cows, to the rear behind the scullery. I don’t know how many generations of witches it had accommodated in solitude, but it seemed heartily ready for a change.

The gift was both unusual and unexpected, and made little sense to either of us until Aaron set himself to learn dairy farming. Both were good milk cows, providing us with far more than we needed. With the excess, Aaron learned first to make butter, then cheese, and as a cheese maker he was a consummate success. It wasn’t that we needed the income; the cottage provided for us in most regards, and we received regular gifts of thanks from grateful villagers, but it’s good for a man to have a profession – something to give him a sense of achievement and self-worth. Besides it is very good cheese.

The weather and I became the talk of the village. After its dramatic changes at certain notable times when I first came to the attention of my neighbours, they started to talk about its various moods in conjunction with my own, which was both gently amusing and intensely embarrassing at the same time. Our wedding night, for instance, was marked by the appearance of a most dramatic display of sheet lightning across a clear night sky, and of St Elmo’s fire erupting from the tree tops. Aaron and I missed it of course – we were otherwise occupied while he introduced me to one of the most agreeably exquisite aspects of womanhood. All the knowing looks and twinkling eyes the following morning were too much and drove me indoors with my face burning. ‘The Lights’ became a regular feature of the night sky, and the subsequent innuendo was in danger of growing out of control until a few days of unseasonal storms reminded everyone that I would not be mocked.

The spring was the warmest and brightest anyone remembered, or so they said, apart from a few days every month. The village had grown used to treading carefully around me on the few days a month the weather turned sombre. Again it was embarrassing having everyone aware of such intimate details of my life, but it had its uses too. I mean who likes to make excuses for their mood at that certain phase of the Moon? Besides, what can’t be cured must be endured, and so I accepted it as part of my life and made no mention of it. In time everyone else followed suit.

As spring turned into summer, a month passed without the usual few overcast days, then another. The rumour mill ground away and I found myself bereft of every woman’s right to share that most exciting of news. I bore it well enough though, I mean when the news is that good you can’t stay angry for long.

Come midwinter, I was waddling around in a most ungainly fashion, still making my rounds of the village, treating sick animals and people alike. The cottage thoughtfully provided an assortment of maternity dresses to accommodate my bulging abdomen, and added a small nursery off the back of our bedroom. One of Miranda’s old cronies from a neighbouring village turned up the day I started labour and helped me through the birth. I don’t remember much of it, though the village still speaks of the storm that tore the roof off farmer Tildey’s barn. I only remember holding my son in my arms as the sun rose into a crystal clear sky and shone down over a pristine white landscape, silent and peaceful in its winter cloak.

We named him Charlie. I wasn’t so sure, but Aaron insisted, saying it felt right somehow. He’s more of a boy than I ever was, so I don’t see him going through the same hardships I faced as a child. Besides, he’s the witch’s son, which should afford him some protection. Just so long as it doesn’t give him cause to think himself better than he is. He’s young yet though, and I’m determined he’ll learn to grow up respecting others.

He comes with me when I do my rounds. Everyone dotes on him, but none more than me. He fills me with a deeper sense of fulfilment than anything I could have imagined. I’ve started mentioning to the people I visit how Aaron and I are hoping for a brother or sister for him in the not too distant future, and I’m having fun watching their reactions. It must have been quite a storm.

There are times when Aaron and I think back to the day everything changed, when his mother came back to us and Miranda died. Sometimes Aaron will ask me what she meant when she said she’d used him against his will in helping me. I can still remember growing up as a boy, but these days it seems more like a dream than something I lived. I’ve thought about telling him, but sometimes it seems that there can be such a thing as too much truth.

-Fin-