That Wednesday, the witch found five silver paperclips laid across her doorstep, next to an apple and a sharpened No. 2 pencil. She regarded them gravely as the breeze from the lake swept up through the pine trees and ruffled her upswept black hair. Then she turned to see if she could spot any signs of who had left them.
The dirt road was empty behind her; a single squirrel raced back and forth across her front lawn, chittering manically as he hunted for food.
The witch shrugged. “ ‘Back to school,’ I suppose.” She scooped up the offerings and carried them with her into the small wooden house.
As usual — as the rules required — she set the day’s offerings on the altar in her living room before she even shrugged off her jacket, and she said a blessing spell across them for whoever had left them to her. If she’d been more certain of their meaning, she could have made the spell more focused; as it was, she wished the giver luck in new ventures and an open mind for knowledge, and she hoped she hadn’t missed the point entirely.
Once she’d finished the spell, though, she couldn’t dismiss the offerings as neatly as usual from her mind. Sitting on her back porch, drinking coffee with her high-heeled work shoes kicked off and her hair released from its clips, she gazed into the rippling waves of the lake that bumped up against her sloping back yard and found herself thinking back to her own school days.
Apples, paperclips, multiple-choice tests . . . simplicity. Order. Her lips curved, ruefully.
Alexander had always said she had a mind as rigidly shut to opposing theories as any Victorian school textbook.
The witch’s smile snapped off as quickly as a light bulb going out. She flipped her loose, long black hair over her shoulder and stalked back into the house, clenching her fingers around her coffee mug.
A long, low wave swept the lake behind her in her wake. Ducks fluttered up out of the water to avoid it, squawking.
The witch’s door was already closed.
The next day, she had to stay late at work, dealing with a crisis. She was still muttering to herself, her shoulders tense, as she walked across the neatly-trimmed grass of her front lawn, side-stepping the squirrel in his usual hyperactive race. She almost tripped over the tiny pile of offerings that had been left that day on her doorstep: a long, narrow candle that looked like it had already been lit at least once before, and seven candy hearts, pink, yellow, and orange, neatly arranged into a tiny “U.” She stopped herself just in time, before the tip of her shoe could crush the bottom heart — that would have broken all the rules — and she looked down at them, baffled.
“ ‘Love,’ I suppose,” she murmured. Her eyebrows drew together. “But why the ‘U’?”
There was no one to answer her except the squirrel, chittering as he scurried up the trunk of the closest pine tree.
She picked up the offerings carefully, keeping the hearts in their proper order, and carried them into the house. At the altar, she dutifully offered a blessing spell to the giver, wishing him or her luck in love. But she felt oddly itchy as she did it, and she found herself glancing out the big front windows to make sure that no one was watching her. Only the squirrel’s beady black eyes looked back at her from the prickly branches of the pine.
Yesterday’s offerings had already been transmuted into a part of the altar, cool and finished. They offered her no help.
She sat down in the kitchen instead of going to the back porch. The sky outside was already beginning to darken. The candy hearts lay in their ‘U’ formation on the altar in the living room, where she’d left them. She nudged off her high heels but left her hair firmly clipped up as she gazed into the depths of her coffee cup.
It had been a long time since she’d wished for love for herself. That had been the point of accepting the old witch’s offer of this house and all the responsibilities that came with it. That was the reason behind the house’s rules.
Upstairs, in the attic, there was a box that held photograph albums from her college years. She hadn’t looked at them since a week after graduation, almost three years ago.
She would not look at them now.
The squirrel’s chittering sounded through the kitchen window. With a flash of irritation, the witch pointed her finger at the radio on top of her refrigerator. It burst into sound, covering up his noises and her too-uncomfortable thoughts.
But it couldn’t cover up her growing conviction, which she would have preferred to drown out: the same person had left both days’ offerings. That meant her first blessing spell hadn’t worked — or it hadn’t been enough. That meant, somehow, she had missed the underlying message.
The witch didn’t like making mistakes.
For the first time in years, she found herself reluctant to come home to her safe, quiet house, the next night after work. She’d left the office early, to make up for her long hours the day before. Instead of coming home, though, she wandered through the downtown area, gazing idly at expensive jewelry and useless crafts she didn’t want. Her reflection in the display windows was cool and professional, blending in neatly with the early evening crowd. No one would know, from looking at her, what she truly was. Only Alexander, of all the men she’d ever met, had known her for a witch. But that, of course, was only because he himself came from a long line of wizards.
Stupid, hard-headed wizards. She ground her teeth together, grinding old hurt into anger.
She wasn’t the one with a closed mind. She wasn’t the one who’d given ultimatums. She wasn’t the one who’d left town the week after graduation and never come back.
The shop assistant gave her an odd look through the window, and the witch realized she had been glowering. She lifted her chin and stepped away. It was time to go home.
The evening air was cool as she walked across her front lawn. The tangy scent of pine mingled with the fresh, sweet smell of the lake. As always, the dirt road was empty. Her closest neighbor lived half a mile away, and even supplicants so desperate that they would drive hours to the witch’s house never dared linger to see her accept their offerings. Were they really afraid of her, she wondered? Perhaps they were more afraid to admit what they believed. Only the squirrel was there when she arrived, running back and forth across her lawn, searching desperately for . . . something. She dismissed him from her mind as she saw her front doorstep.
A bright orange life jacket, limp and deflated, lay propped against her door. Frowning, she scooped it up.
“‘Help?’” she asked.
No one answered her.
She walked into the house, closing the front door firmly behind her. As she set the life jacket down on the altar, her fingers brushed against a set of tiny holes in the fabric.
Teeth marks. Very, very small teeth marks.
The witch kept her mind utterly blank as she spoke the blessing spell for safety and aid in great endeavors. She kept her mind blank as she changed out of her professional clothing into a bathing suit. She chose her most modest and all-covering suit, despite the fact that she had no neighbors to see her. She walked out the back door, across her carefully-tended back lawn, and dived into the lake.
The water was cold and piercing, like knives, or knowledge. She swam deep under, trailing her fingers through the thick, slimy weeds. When she surfaced, gasping for breath, her hair lay cold and clinging against her shoulders. The squirrel was running up and down the steps of her back porch, looking frantic.
A strong, cold wave swept through the water, sending birds and insects fluttering away from it in alarm. The witch didn’t move as it swept over her, stinging against her open eyes.
It was time to face the truth.
The next morning, she called in sick to work. She put on her most expensive black blazer and skirt, pinned her long hair neatly atop her head, and drove out of sight of the house. Then she cloaked herself in silence and stillness, and walked back to sit, invisible, on her front lawn.
She didn’t have to wait very long.
It took a great deal of effort for the squirrel to drag all the different sticks he’d gathered across the yard. Even more effort, chittering and anxious, to arrange them into letters, nibbling at the ends of the sticks to shape them properly. The witch watched, her anger rising and falling from moment to moment. She waited until he had stepped back, preparing to jump into the safety of the trees.
Then she undid her cloaking spell.
“So you’ve given up on symbolism?” she said.
The squirrel froze. His beady black eyes stared at her. His big, bushy tail twitched.
The witch stepped up beside him to read the awkward number and letters formed by sticks.
“The rules say I have to take these to the altar,” she told him. “The rules say I have to say a blessing spell over them, whether I want to or not.”
He stared up at her, his black eyes shining.
The witch said, “I only agreed to the rules because of you. To keep anyone else from hurting me the way that you did.”
He looked up at her, shivering. She couldn’t tell if it was from the breeze or from nerves.
She ignored the sticks. Instead, she scooped up the squirrel. He froze in her hand for a moment, then raced up her arm to stand on her shoulder. She set her mouth in a grim line and walked into the house, to the altar. He hopped onto it, looking nervous.
On the altar, all his offerings were frozen into place around him, fixed for all time.
The witch took a deep breath and remembered cold water, sharp and bracing against her skin. She did not let herself remember the albums upstairs. She closed her eyes and said the spell.
She heard the altar shatter before she opened them.
Alexander was thinner than he had been three years ago, and he stood naked before her. His human eyes were dark and focused with intensity, and she had to look away from them to keep hold of her breath and righteous anger.
“You couldn’t just phone me?” she snapped. “If you finally changed your mind about your stupid ultimatums –”
“I changed my mind less than a week after I left,” Alexander said. “Do you know how long it takes a squirrel to cross the country?”
“If you hadn’t been careless enough to turn yourself into a squirrel –”
“I wasn’t the one who did it,” he said.
“Well, I certainly didn’t –” She stopped. “Wait. Is this some family curse? All those wizards in your family . . .”
Alexander shrugged, flushing. “I turned my back on love, so my ancestors jumped in to teach me a lesson. I agree with the message, but I wouldn’t have chosen their methods.”
“Well,” the witch said. Her lips twitched. “Well.”
She looked down at the offerings, fresh again and unfrozen, scattered across the floor with the remnants of the altar.
Paperclips, pencil, apple. I want to learn.
Candle, candy-hearts in a U. I love you.
Life jacket. Help.
And, outside: 4give.
She felt a shiver in the air around her, signaling changes underfoot. The rules had been broken. Anything could happen.
The witch said to the wizard, “You’d better come into the kitchen with me. It’s warmer there. We’ll have coffee.”