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Bellflower and Hellebore

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It's nearly evening when the wolf happens upon the wall. It's tall, tall as two men, with a row of once-wicked iron spikes at the top; time, however, has taken its teeth. The old stone is thick with rust and moss, and the wolf suspects that he would be in more danger of lockjaw than of a mortal wound should he try to clear the barrier. As the sun begins to dip beneath the encircling trees, the wolf trots around the curve of the wall to where the door once stood.

Someone has blown it from its hinges, and now it sags in the gap. No wolf's breath did that, he thinks, as he passes under the splintered wood and into the courtyard beyond. No, that was a woodsman's axe.

No one makes cottages of wattle and daub any longer, plastering mud over stick and straw to keep the cold out; no one thatches the roofs with long grasses in thick bundles. The days have been leaner for it.

At the center of the courtyard stands a tall tower, the stone facing unbroken but for the window at the top. A nest of thorn-roses stretches beneath it, the long stems climbing over iron trellises and raspberry canes; the raspberries themselves have grown wild, without their mistress to tend them. Even after nearly a decade of desolation, the wolf can smell that the place had a mistress, and that she used to make soap with rosemary from the rendered fat of infants.

He has waited a dozen times at the crossroads where the path of pins meets the path of needles; he knows well how a child's flesh smells on the autumn air.

There are bellflowers growing wild throughout the courtyard, a spade still caught in the soil near the base of one monstrous flower. Their leaves have been allowed to grow broad, and those will most probably be bitter, but the roots will be thick and musk-sweet.

The days have been leaner, of late, and even the grandmothers in the woods have flintlocks to protect them from wolves. A witch's garden ought not to go untended.

Rising to his feet, he puts off his wolfskin and dons the skin of a man. His hands flex once, twice on the grass, and he blinks at the unaccustomed dimness. This skin always disquiets him; it is delicate and easily torn, and then not easily repaired. He will have to take especial care not to prick himself.

Grasping the spade by the handle, he digs it into the earth and pries up a long root. Through the thick coating of dirt, it gleams white in his hand.

Tonight, the wolf will feast on rapunzel.

* * *

On the first day, he cuts back the roses so that they'll stop strangling the raspberries; the work is hard, with only the witch's rusted shears and his ill-practiced hands to manage them. If he wants to shelter in the tower, though, he'll have to reach it first, and the roses will tear at his soft human skin until he's as red as they are.

That evening, he hunts down a mouse and swallows it whole. He spends the rest of the evening being violently sick behind a patch of thyme.

On the second day, he attempts to gain the window. From the least damaged of the spikes on the wall, the wolf fashions a hook that will bear his weight. (He ought not to think of himself as the wolf any longer, he knows, but old habits of thought die hard.) From green vines, he weaves himself a long rope, and with rope and hook, he begins to scale the side of the tower.

There are ledges in the rock made for human toes, and he jams the pads of his feet against them when his arms feel ready to give out. Many of those ledges are slippery with moss, but his hands are slippery with sweat, and he knows that he must take whatever comfort the rock face can offer.

When he reaches the window at last, he rests on the ledge for a moment and catches his breath. The interior of the tower is dark as the inside of a chimney; for half a second he can feel the heat beneath him and the soot shifting around him, and he must breathe slowly and deeply before he can go on.

Above all else, he despises a chimney with a fire at the bottom--above all else but the huntsman's axe. As he flings himself over the window ledge and into the room beyond, he feels a strange kinship with the long-departed witch with her roses and her rosemary and her rapunzel growing wild.

There is a lantern hanging by the window, and a box of matches--blessedly free of damp--on a shelf above them. The wolf remembers the days before there were matches, when soldiers carried tinderboxes with flint and steel against the darkness. It wasn't long ago that the witch lived here, he tells himself, and he dips the match in the witch's acid bottle to make the phosphorus flare.

Swallows have nested in the rafters, and they cheep and squeak in alarm when he holds the lantern aloft. Their droppings streak the velvet hangings of the bed, years of accreted grey muck concealing the color of the velvet. There are books along the walls, some of which have been nibbled by mice (for the sweet paste of their binding, he thinks) and all of which look worse for the wear. He flips one open and checks the title page for a publication date.

MDCCCXX, reads the date at the bottom. Frankfurt.

He closes the book and places it on the shelf again.

There is a wardrobe against one wall; the wood of the doors has swollen and warped, but he hangs the lantern from a hook in the rafters and lends both hands to the task. After a few minutes of struggle--his hands are still raw from the vines--he wrenches the doors apart.

There are four long gowns there, short-sleeved and white, with high waists and busts made for a flat-chested girl. There is a long rope of braided hair at the bottom of the wardrobe, although the strands are now brittle enough that they break at a touch. Once, he thinks, that hair might have been gold.

He is naked, and humans do not go naked; he pulls the gown over his head and fits his arms through the sleeves.

He cannot take the witch's place, in this dusty tower with an overgrown garden at its feet, but he can tend it until she returns.

If she returns, he thinks. If the man who had chopped her door to flinders had found her ... some things, even a witch could not survive.

* * *

There are no tools in all the tower, and none in the courtyard around it; on the third day, he scents the woods beyond the wall, hoping to find a woodsman's cottage or a servant's outbuilding, but he finds nothing but a nearby farmer's hovel. Three bunches of bellflowers hang down in the windows, the leaves and flowers dried paper-fragile and the roots shriveled to leathery strings.

In the narrow bed lie two sets of weathered bones, although some creature--probably another wolf--has carried the woman's arm to the far end of the hovel, and the man's leg is gone entirely. "Good feasting, brothers," the wolf says; his voice is low and rust-rough.

There is a saw hanging from the wall, and although the metal is spotted with rust (more than spotted, where the timbers have spread as they've weathered), the edge can be sharpened. He finds the farmer's whetstone, takes the saw by the handle, and rubs the rock over the blade until it's grown sharp as his teeth.

That evening, he builds a wooden ladder to the tower window, and he eats a supper of rapunzel leaves before he climbs up to the long-abandoned bed. There are mice burrowing in the mattress, but he minds very little; they will be his breakfast in the morning.

He will teach himself to cook them, he thinks, although the thought of boiling them in water makes his stomach twist. He will roast them instead with rampion roots, and he will save their tails with that long rope of hair. The witch will want them, if she returns.

* * *

At midnight on the third day, he chooses a name for himself, and he buries it in a glass jar at the foot of the tower.

* * *

By the seventh day, he has caught every last one of the swallows and preserved their tongues and hearts in vials filled with alcohol; he has cleaned the velvet hangings around the bed and sewn up the rips in the mattress, and he has weeded every last row of rapunzel and hemlock and agrimony. There are bundles of lavender and sage hanging from the rafters, and there is sweet mouse-fat ready to be rendered for lamp oil.

In the sunlight glancing through the tower window, he sits at the newly-polished mirror and studies his face. It is a wolfish face, long nose and thin lips with sharp teeth at either corner; his eyes gleam gold when the sun hits them right, and his skin is the golden brown of good ale.

He takes the dead farmer's knife, sharpened to an aching keenness, and he drags it down the sides of his cheeks and his narrow chin. The skin is left clean and smooth, and he traces his fingertips along the bone of his jaw.

The last witch left pots of paint in black and red upon her dressing-table, and now the wolf traces the paint-tipped brush over his eyelids, his lashes, his thin lower lip.

He doesn't recognize the woman's face that he is painting, but he doesn't recognize his man's face, either; to a wolf, all humans look like prey.

* * *

By the time the surveyors come with their tripods and their theodolites, their long tape and their neat, trim suits, the apple trees in the garden are flush with red fruit and the raspberries are almost at the end of their season. The roses at the base of the tower have grown broad and blood-red, and their new blooms creep across the earth in search of an iron trellis that they can scale.

"Oh--your pardon, miss," says one, when the wolf straightens from a patch of low black hellebore. The flowers look no different from the flowers of strawberries. "The locals had said no one lived here--"

"They'd said no one's lived here for years," the other puts in. "To tell the truth, we were quite sure the land had reverted to the state by now--"

"Hush," says the wolf. He speaks seldom, and there is still a burr to his voice that no work can rub smooth. He looks up at the two of them with heavy-lidded eyes, a single stem of hellebore still held loosely in one hand. "You wanted to tear down the tower and build a house of brick. A country mansion, of many rooms--and you would sell it to a rich man who loves hunting, and hates a wolf in his woods."

"That's. Ah," says the first surveyor. He shoulders his tripod and removes his spectacles, polishing them uncomfortably on his pocket-handkerchief. "That's more or less what we'd planned, yes. Ah. Miss."

He should tear their throats out--he should shed this weak human skin and drop to all fours, feel the hair bristle along his shoulders and the thick ruff at the back of his neck, and he should tear them open and scatter their flesh across the courtyard.

Instead, his hand closes on the stem, and he tucks it into his apron. "Will you come up to my tower?" he says. "I'll make tea for us."

"A splendid idea!" the second surveyor replies, eying the wooden stair that now circles the tower. "If you'd like a door put in, we know an excellent contractor--"

"I won't be needing it," he replies.

"Suit yourself," says the surveyor, shrugging and beginning to climb.

He can feel his name throbbing like a buried heart at the base of the tower, and he can smell the sharp tang of hellebore as he crushes the leaves between his fingers.

He is the witch now--and witches work by poison.