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The Baker's Son and the Witch

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The Baker's son was a lad of twelve when he met his first witch. He had, strictly speaking, known one before, but it was widely agreed that, while a formative encounter for all involved, it couldn’t actually count since the Baker’s son didn’t remember anything, still being a rather doughy infant at the time.  She couldn’t be properly called his witch. The second first time he met a witch, the Baker’s son was tending the garden that his father, the titular Baker, always called it Cinderella's garden. This was partially as a way to fully welcome her into their home by giving her something of her own, something Cinderella always called jokingly—or not—her domain. And partially to disavow all responsibility for the weeding, though Cinderella's firmly tender smile usual coaxed the Baker out to help. He was a good man after all and everything, and he loved Cinderella. The Baker’s son didn’t find that nearly as noteworthy as he should have, as it was becoming. After all, the Baker’s son loved Cinderella as well. She wasn’t his mother, but she was very good at being his Cinderella.

The Baker's son for his part needed no coaxing to work in her gardens. Already it was clear to all who know him that he had a knack for making things grow. He was a talented lad, who would in his own mundane way work all his days to make life better for those who knew him, a labor he had begun with his conception. But he had never met a witch before. And so we must think of him as quite the provincial lad indeed for adulthood starts with many omens, but a witch is the greatest of them. Not that the Baker’s son knew her for a witch when she approached. The Baker's lad knew his own story well, but even he forgot sometimes that witches could be beautiful.

In the lad's favor, though, no one had ever told him they could be twelve year's old as well.

"Hello," the Baker's son said politely to the girl standing at the fence, her chin resting on a post as she studied him. It was quite a chin, and it had quite a nose to go with it. In the way only children can, the Baker's son quietly and permanently fell in love with them.

"I need water," the witch said. "I've walked so long and I'm parched."

"I'll fetch some for you," the Baker's son said, for he was raised to be solicitous to strangers lest one of them, say, curse your family line for a few generations. Between the Baker and Cinderella, the Baker's son had learned just about all the stories and morals a young lad could need to learn, and between Jack and Red, the Baker's son had learned how to balance them together. And even if no one had ever told him any tale starting in "once upon a time," he was an incurably nice lad, and a good one to boot, and it was second nature for him to draw up the bucket from the well.

When he brought the cup back to the fence, the witch who he did not know was a witch squinted at him suspiciously. "You're supposed to say no," she said.

"Er," the Baker's son said, the tin mug of water still outstretched. "To what?"

"To offering me water," replied the witch. "You say no, and then I make salamanders fall out of your mouth, and then your brother comes out and I ask him the same, and when he says no I make slugs fall out of his mouth, and then the youngest comes out, and he's the one that finally gives me water, so I make pearls fall out of his mouth. You can't say yes on the first go. That's not a story. That's a good deed."

"I didn't know I was supposed to be in a story," said the Baker's son, who had been under the impression all his life that stories were something that happened so that he could be born and that the world was done with making new ones now.

"Of course you're in a story," said the witch. "I'm a witch, aren't I? I'm a walking story."

The Baker's son reconsidered the nose, the chin, and found himself no less in love with them. "I'm sorry, I didn't know you were a witch. I'd have pointed you towards the Butcher's house, he's got three daughters and the older ones resigned themselves to being the nasty ones a long time ago. I don't have any siblings myself."

"None?" asked the witch as if the Baker's son had done this on purpose.

"None," said the Baker's son with the familiar sadness about the subject. He wouldn't have minded a few more siblings, but he knew his own story, and how much work it was to get him in the first place. And his siblings would have someone else's mother, which might be fine for some people under different circumstances, but it didn't feel very respectful towards the Baker's wife. The Baker's son isn't sure that his mother would approve. And when your mother's been dead for longer than you've got a memory, all you've really got is how you honor her. He think he'd have to hate any half-siblings on principle, which no lad who's incurable nice and good to boot wants to think about themselves. But he’d have to hate them, no question. After all, he would be the oldest. Everyone knew what that meant in those kinds of stories.

The witch chewed on her lip as she thought. She had a wart on her nose that she'd grow into someday, the Baker's son noticed. He tried not to stare. "No siblings at all?"

"As far as I know," said the Baker's son, which little did he, in fact, know was a better answer than saying "none." Though to be fair, his next sibling was still growing inside Cinderella and no one knew that yet except her.

"What about love? Are you in love with anyone?" the witch asked. "Prepared to go on a quest for her, him, or them?"

"Er," said the Baker's son again, because he got the feeling that if he told the witch that he was in love with her, she'd only get more cross. "I love lots of people," he settled on, an honest answer. "I love my father and my mother and my Cinderella and my Jack and my Red Riding Hood. I probably love a few more people, only I can't remember right now."

But the witch was shaking her head. "That's no good, it's got to be one person. You can't go on a quest for loads of people. You can go on a quest to save your beloved or maybe a sibling or two or maybe the entire realm. Do you know if the realm is in danger?"

"We don't really follow politics," the Baker's son said diplomatically, since the reason they didn't was because once queen lived in their cottage and still got kind of funny when you mentioned her ex-husband.

"You're not a very fairy tale lad," the witch said.

"I'm a very fairy tale lad," the Baker's son said. "It's just that I'm the happily ever after. Or. Well. I’m the ever after, at least."

The witch stared at him, her big brown eyes seeming to look at him, really look at him, for the first time. "Oh blazes," she said. "You're the Baker's son."

The Baker's son finally lowered the tin mug of water.

When the witch was done telling him what she'd heard of his parents' story, they'd nearly finished the loaf of bread that the Baker's son had fished off the shelf. "But there weren't any dragons," he said as she took another bite.

"Course there were dragons," she said through a mouthful. "What story doesn't have dragons?"

"Most stories with witches," he said, scanning his memory. "I don't think dragons and witches tend to be in the same stories, and we got a witch so we couldn't get a dragon."

"Witches and dragons are old friends," said the witch who had never met a dragon but was very much looking forward to doing so one day. It was half the reason she'd became a witch. The other reason was that when a girl is born with a wart on her nose, you more or less know what her life's going to be. "Makes more sense than a giant coming down from the sky."

"Doesn't have to make sense," said the Baker's son. "It's what happened. It makes sense because it happened."

The witch waved that statement off easily. "Nothing makes sense just because it happened," she said. "And nothing really happens. You just tell stories about things until you all agree on the past."

 "That's not true," said the Baker's son, though the conversation was getting a little too metaphysical for him.

"Is," the witch said as she gnawed on the crust. "If everyone started telling each other that your father slew a dragon, eventually it would have been a dragon your father slew."

"But we've got a giant's skull in our backyard."

"Details."

“Facts.”

“No such thing.”

“So you’re saying,” the Baker’s son puzzled out, “that what happened didn’t actually happened. And what we say about what happened is what actually happened.”

“Narrative is just about the most powerful magic out there.”

“Then you must be good at it, being a witch,” the Baker’s son said.

“Of course I’m good at it,” lied the witch. Or didn’t lie, if you think about it, because lie is just a name for a narrative you weren’t expecting and didn’t spot, and she was quite good at lying. The Baker’s son spotted nothing. He was too busy wondering if his father really had slain a dragon.

No, probably now. Someone besides the witch would have mentioned it by now.

“You’re not the protagonist then,” said the witch sadly, stretching back in the bit of sunlight that had shifted through the clouds. “Shame. I took one look at you and thought, there’s a lad with a touch of the narrative about him. And you don’t even have siblings.”

The Baker’s son shrugged one shoulder apologetically. If the witch had been looking at him instead of lying back, her head tilted up to the sun like not exactly a flower, no, but one of those very hardy ferns that have been around since the dinosaurs and would be around long after the mammals were gone too, if she’d glanced his way in that moment, she might have seen something in his face that was narrative indeed. Grief, you might call it, though the word grief was, as it always is, inadequate to describe the actual emotion felt. Grief for a life that might have been and never would be lived, perhaps. That was a little closer. Grief for the place in a child’s life where half his heart ought to be, that hardly remembered figure that birthed and fed and loved him, a figure gone so fast that her greatest legacy with her child (besides the child itself) was that she had loved him so well while the foundations of his soul were still under construction that the child had come out both nice and good.

“Always wanted them,” the Baker’s son said instead with the ease of someone who knows they’ll be grieving all their life so why press it now.

“You’ll get them soon enough,” the witch murmured, her eyes still shut. A different lad might have sat up at that, harkening to the sound of a witch’s prophecy, one of their most renowned sort of skills (people not being generally keen to renown the ability to turn men into frogs or make the baby colicky). But the Baker’s son, who’d heard statements like that all his life from neighborhood crones who didn’t understand the Baker and Cinderella’s relationship (they didn’t but it turned out the Baker’s son didn’t either), ignored the words. Instead he thumped back on the grass beside her, and together they lay in the sunlight awhile, thinking secret thoughts that’d never find their way out of any mouths.

In the name of privacy then, let’s glance up the road a moment, a winding dirt path that was used to have more houses along it, before the giant. But the debris was gone and the day was clear as Cinderella ambled home from market and more specifically from the midwife there who took one look at Cinderella, squeezed some bits the way old women assessing the young do, and said, “Girl.”

“Woman,” Cinderella had corrected, tying her apron back on.

The midwife pointed at Cinderella’s stomach. Or rather, at anatomy in the vicinity of the stomach. “Girl.”

Cinderella said, “Oh.” She said, “So I am expecting then.”

“Expecting a girl. The Baker’s daughter.”

“Cinderella’s daughter,” Cinderella said softly, pulling her cloak back on.

“If you like. You’ll want to marry before you’re big, a stick like you.”

“Marry?” She almost protested that she was already married, before she remembered that in the eyes of her marriage and the larger realm she was dead, and her husband as much a widower as the Baker. Remarried widower, in the Prince’s case. Four times, in fact, and Cinderella was thinking about sending him a very stern letter about the way he ran through good women.

The midwife pinned a bit of herb to Cinderella’s lapel—a good luck charm if worn and an abortifacient if consumed since midwives, like witches, believe in nothing so much as keeping your options open—and said, “Mind you, half the couples in this village were with child when they married. And the other half ain’t married. But doesn’t mean they won’t snigger at someone without the common sense to hide it.” The midwife eyed Cinderella’s waistline suspiciously. “Within two weeks, I’d say. You’re bound to bloat fast.”

“Thank you,” said Cinderella with firm politeness, “but we won’t be marrying.”

The midwife raised her eyebrow. “No?” she asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Cinderella had said, pulling on the traveling cloak that the Baker had given her last winter. “I don’t fancy being a stepmother.”

And walking home, her hat hanging from her hand, her cloak billowing around her in the spring winds, she paused on the dirt road and glanced at the woods of the path.

By the sapling growing where her mother’s tree had once been, Cinderella had told the birds that yes, they’d been right. The nest was growing. They’d twittered amongst themselves with such excitement that Cinderella was half wondering she should expect a bassinet delivered to the cottage via a swarm of sparrows. Then the birds took off, possibly to steal that bassinet. And Cinderella was alone.

Cinderella’s hand rose to her stomach. And then, after a long, long time, she began to smile as slow and warm and unstoppable as the sunrise.

Back at the Baker’s and Cinderella’s cottage, the children had finished weeding the garden, the work done faster than it ever had been before. Witches too are very good at growing things, though rarely the kind of things we’d wish they’d grow. And the work done and lunch eaten and story put on hold until a few more siblings could be found for a proper narrative trajectory, the witch and the Baker’s son waited by the gate, looking for ways to postpone goodbyes.

"Will you be around?” the Baker’s son asked.

“Are you afraid of that?” the witch replied.

“No,” said the Baker’s son.

“You should be,” said the witch.  “But yes. I’ll be around. I'm the witch. There's always got to be a witch, and you lot haven’t had one for a while."

"Right, good," said the Baker's son. And then, flashing to his own story, he thought to ask, "Are you good?”

The witch smiled.

After a moment, the Baker's son decided to smile back. "Everyone’ll be home soon," said the Baker's son. "You should stay with us for dinner."

"Witches don't stay for dinner."

"Sure," said the Baker's son. "But we're having shepard's pie tonight and it's really good."

The witch paused. She didn’t have an answer for that one. Or rather she did, and the answer was no. But. She had been walking all day (being too young to be allowed her own broomstick and the only animal she’d managed to transform herself into thus far was a tortoise, which was a generally a satisfactory experience but not the kind of trick that helps you get places faster) and she was hungry. The bread had taken the edge off of her hunger (and now that she thought about it, she should have said no to the bread, she didn’t ask for the bread, the stranger at the gate is only supposed to be given what they ask for and they judge accordingly based on that, if you started judging people on whether or not they gave you what you never asked for, you’d be cursing most of the population of the earth), but it wasn’t enough to satiate her, and now that she thought about it some more, it had been days since she’d had a good meal (on the road to this village, there’d been some gathering along the way and some vague gestures towards hunting as well, but the witch found that she didn’t recognize the plants in this area and she still didn’t quite have it in her to kill for dinner, having the mind of a fox but tragically the heart of a tortoise). She was due a new meal. She was a witch, wasn’t she (and witches always thought many things at once and usually in parenthesis[1], meaning that even as she argued to herself why she should accept the dinner, the other parts of her mind were making compelling but ultimately less compelling arguments about why she should not) and witches took what they were due.

“Alright then,” she said through the cacophonous euphony that is a witch’s mind. “I accept your offering.”

“Great!” said the Baker’s son, giddy that the witch had agreed after hardly a moment’s thought. “You can meet my family.” And so could the Baker’s son.

Cinderella’s daughter was a few seconds old when she met her first witch. She fell plop into the witch’s hands who washed her, wrapped her, and—in a fairly unprecedented move for witches—handed her right back to her mother’s arms. Cinderella grasped at her daughter with exhausted arms, grasped at her words with an exhausted brain. She tried to ask if her daughter was healthy, but what came out was, “Is she good? Is she good?”

“Knowing this family, insufferably,” said the witch, still a little pale. She was only thirteen after all, even with the chin and the wart. But the midwife’s horse had broken its leg, and the witch lived just down the road, and the Baker’s son practically dragged the witch out of bed.

“You need to help Cinderella and my sister!” he’d said earnestly as he grabbed her hand, and the witch had thought more affectionately than she would have liked that this was a brother who was never going to be properly cruel to his half-sibling. He really was a terrible fairy tale.

Cinderella brought her daughter to her face, pressed her cheek against the top of the squirming newborn’s soft little head. “My little princess,” she whispered.

Outside the bedroom door, the dual pacing that the witch had been listening to for the last hour had stopped. She could practically hear Baker and son holding their breaths. But they wouldn’t come in until they were invited. They were men, after all, and just about the other thing in this world they viewed with baffled mysticism was childbirth.

“Bring them in,” said Cinderella. “I want them to meet her. She’s perfect. And look!” she added as the witch walked to the door. “She’s got a bump on her nose just like you.”

The witch paused at that, her hand on the doorknob. On the other side of the door, the Baker and the Baker’s son glanced nervously at each other at the sound of cackling.

And a minute later the Baker’s son met his second witch.  

 

[1] And when they get older, footnotes as well.