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The Witch's Knives by Aud Koch

© 2015 Aud Koch
"The Witch's Knives"

It began to rain flowers before she was even halfway down the path, heavy, wet petals that splatted rather than landed and left sticky red smears down her neck. Leah kept her head down and followed the train tracks, stumbling when the rotted ties gave way. I am here to rescue my husband, she rehearsed in her head, trying to ignore how the red sap trickled through her hair and how the railroad ties sank and splintered underfoot. I am here to break your curse.

But when she reached the witch's door at an abandoned rail depot, all of her speeches failed her. "It's not working," she told the witch when the door opened to her pounding. "He's still a beast."

The words came out as more of a whine than an accusation, and the witch gave her a long, considering look. She was shorter than Leah, and round in a way that complemented her cats'-eye glasses, but the silver-plated skirt and sweater that seemed knitted from fish scales were enough to mark her as someone outside the world Leah had grown up in. Without a word, she stepped aside and gestured for Leah to follow.

Inside, the witch's house was still very much the depot it resembled, with a four-sided clock hanging from the ceiling and a long double-backed bench down the middle of the room. The witch waved her towards the bench as she bustled to the far corner, where a pushcart stood at an angle against the wall. Leah started towards the bench, then stopped, staring at the wall past it. Once, it must have been the board where times and arrivals were listed, but now several long rails ran across it, smoother and brighter than the defunct ones outside. Each rail held dozens upon dozens of knives, from paring knives smaller than her pinky to long, heavy blades too crude to be swords. The edges gleamed at her, reflecting rainlight from the depot's windows. It was like her husband's opulent kitchen, but even more overwrought, like a mad sous-chef's dream.

For just a moment she saw that kitchen in memory, the saucepans tossed aside by the monster who hunched in the corner, growling and begging her not to look at him. But it hadn't been the monster who threw a Dutch oven across the room and demanded to know why this was still happening. And it hadn't been the monster who put his noble face in his hands and whispered I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I don't know why it isn't working, I don't know what's wrong with me—

The witch lifted the lid from a pot on the end of the pushcart, dropping it to the side with a clang. Leah flinched, swallowed, then moved aside a bundle of antlers and sat carefully on the polished wood with her back to the knives, her shoulders prickling.

Cups in hand, the witch shuffled back across the floor, kicking aside detritus and dead leaves. "You came by way of the Turning City," she said, holding out one cup to Leah, and her voice was so normal that at first Leah thought someone else entirely must have spoken. "Must have, if you took the rails."

Leah nodded and took the cup. It was coffee, stewed for a long time and smelling faintly of orange peel.

"Turning City. Been a while since anyone came through from there." The witch sat down on the floor, pulled a mouse skull out from under her, and tossed it over her shoulder. "So. Why don't you tell me about it?"

"It's—well, it deserves the name. The whole thing turns on its axis once a day, and it's not at the same rate, so about twice an hour it'd lurch and I'd fall over—" and they'd laugh, the people who'd lived in the city their whole lives, and you could tell who hadn't because they were the ones getting to their feet, "but I got through, all the way to the primary spindle. That's where I found the Rail Queen—she told me how to find you, she put me on the path—"

"I know that," the witch interrupted gently. "She'd have to, for you to get here. What I mean is, why don't you tell me about why you're here."

"O-of course." Stupid, stupid—tell me about it, she says, and you go off about your journey as if you were just sharing a day out with a girlfriend. As if he weren't depending on you. As if you could waste any more time than you already have. She cupped her hands around the coffee, not minding the heat leaching out through the thin metal camping mug, and began with the night her father's flight got in from New York. Only it hadn't come straight from New York; the storm had forced a layover, and he'd had to get home in a rental car, and there had been a curiously abandoned, lavish hotel on the way . . . and things had gotten stranger from there, for him and then for Leah.

She tried her best to make it sound sensible, even with the flowers drying in her hair and the lights dancing over the far end of the depot, where a moldering stack of steamer trunks seemed to host a colony of luminous moths. And she tried to make it sound as if she hadn't watched a lot of Disney movies growing up, even though that had been her guide once she realized what was going on. The great mansion, seemingly walled off from everywhere else, the luxuries gone unused, the inklings of a world she'd never known, the rages of a monster . . . and the sad, angry man at the heart of that monster, needing her more than he could ever express.

The witch nodded and drank her own coffee and motioned for Leah to drink hers (the orange peel turned out to be a long strip at the bottom of the cup). When it came to talking about her husband, how he'd been before she'd broken the curse, Leah found herself stumbling. "He was so beautiful," she said.

"Monsters are, often," the witch agreed.

"But that wasn't—even though he was a monster, he was so beautiful, and sad, and even the times when he was a beast, he couldn't help those, and . . ." She wiped her nose, fumbled in her pocket for a tissue, remembered she'd sold the last to the Tributaries for a map to the Turning City, and wiped her nose on her hand instead.

"You fell in love with him."

The witch stated it without emotion, simply, as if it were one on a list of tasks for a committee. Leah looked at her, trying to see any change of expression, but there was nothing. She wiped her nose again. "Yes. And when I said I'd marry him, and the curse broke—" The witch shook her head, but when Leah paused, gestured at her to go on. "He was human again, and we—it was wonderful." She smiled, though her eyes were even hotter and leakier now. "It was like a fairytale."

At that the witch sighed. "You've spent the past—how long? Six weeks?"

"Eight months," Leah whispered.

"The past eight months walking through what once would have been called fairytales by your storytellers. Do you still think that's the best comparison?"

Leah thought of what she'd seen on the long journey—and then of her husband, sullen and loving and sad. "Yes."

The witch smiled, a little, and Leah saw the glint of the wall behind her reflected in the witch's glasses. "Go on, then."

"Well—" How to begin to say it? How to describe the evenings when she was certain his teeth had lengthened, waking to see a fuzz of boar-bristles down his back that faded by noon and were back by dinner, the rumble in his voice that shouldn't have been able to come from a human chest? "Well, after a few months we both noticed that he, he wasn't, the curse wasn't entirely gone."

"He was still a beast."

"Only sometimes!" Only sometimes, and never to the extent it had been before their marriage. There were no shattered windows, no shredded saplings . . . just words, and fury fueled by pain. But now it was worse, because afterwards he'd be so very sorry and horrified by what he'd done and saying I don't understand, it should have worked, why am I still like this? And never quite said, but unspoken louder and louder as the weeks passed, why isn't your love enough to save me?

The witch sighed again, and Leah realized she'd said the last part out loud. "I don't know what it is with you people. Either you don't understand magic or you don't understand love."

Leah sat upright, her hands clutching the cup hard. "I understand love. Don't you dare tell me I don't." She met the witch's eyes, solemn gray behind her cat's-eye glasses. "But I don't understand your curse. So I came to ask you to undo it." She'd left at night, while he slept, leaving a long and rambling letter that promised her return. On her bleaker days, she wondered how far he'd read before tearing it to pieces.

The witch lowered her gaze, then set down her own cup and stood up, only to shove aside the bundle of antlers and sit down next to Leah. "No, you didn't."

Leah began to speak, and the witch held up one finger. "You came to find me because that would prove you really loved him. So tell me one more thing, then," the witch said, scooting around to tuck one leg under the other. "How was your trip?"

Braced for a defense of her love—and of her husband, beast or no—Leah was caught up short. "What?"

"Your trip. The one that brought you all the way to the Turning City and the Rail Queen, neither of which are things people like you ought to see in the course of a life. The one that started when you left his door."

"Well, I—" She pushed a lock of drying hair out of her eyes, the red flower rain tacky on her fingers. "I started in Chicago—you know where that is? And I'd done my research, so I went south . . ."

It came in bits and pieces, as disjointed as her earlier stumbling report of the Turning City, but it came regardless, a flood of things that she never thought she'd see, let alone do. The witch listened, and laughed where it was funny and made horrified or sympathetic noises where it was not, and got them both more coffee from the pushcart, twice. The moths on the steamer trunks formed patterns, winked out, bloomed to light again.

And, finally, the story brought her to the witch and her wall of knives—the presence of which Leah had forgotten over the course of the telling. "That's amazing," the witch said at last. "I can honestly say I've never known anyone who's gone through all that."

"I had a good reason," Leah said, then stopped. She could almost see her husband's beautiful mouth twist, hear the acid in his voice: such a good reason that you forgot it while you were talking? No wonder I'm still a beast.

Love, forgive me, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.

The witch, watching her, sighed again. "Well. You wanted to know about the curse. And I'm sorry, but you're under the wrong impression. The curse was never about you marrying the beast."

"But it worked!"

"Did it? Here." The witch rummaged among the antlers and came up with an old rag doll. "I assume you know the principles of sympathetic magic," the witch said, and before Leah could answer, held up the doll and a twig. "Make a connection between target and simulacrum." Doll and twig were held together, clasped tight, then let go. "Then affect the simulacrum—" snap went the twig, "—and the target will be thus affected." The witch twisted the cloth leg to a painful angle, then let go.

Leah shook her head. "You're saying that what I do here affects him—"

"No." She smoothed the doll's hair back. "I'm saying you can't love someone out of a curse. You're very good at making the connection." She held up the doll again, next to the same twig, suddenly whole again. "Your love, the curse. But you haven't followed through." Instead of snapping the twig a second time, she laid it down next to the doll, both untouched.

Leah stared at the doll, then slowly curled up until her forehead touched her knees.

"The terms of the curse," the witch said gently, "were not bound to loving a beast, but to ending that love."

"That's cruel."

"I had a good reason."

At the echo of her own words, Leah looked up to see the witch gazing over her shoulder at the wall of knives. She made herself sit up again. "I can't just—is that the test, to love him enough to give him up—"

"Weren't you just listening? You can't love someone out of a curse." The witch got to her feet with a grunt, then circled the bench and approached the long lines of knives. "You love him, yes, but tell me truth: were you happier the long year you spent in your new husband's house, or these past eight months on the road? On the road," she emphasized, "without him."

Leah felt the protest rising up, but it got no further than her throat. It had been strange, to wake without him, but there had been nights when she'd realized that she had laughed without thinking first, that she had made a joke without checking the topics that were off-limits, that she had breathed and eaten and slept without being reminded of her inadequate love. And even just now, she had felt more at ease speaking of her trip than of the blissful, strange, furious eighteen months prior to that.

It was not the first crack in the glass, she thought, but rather recognizing that the glass was already cracked, that she wasn't just looking at things the wrong way.

One of the knives winked at her. She blinked, and the knife fell to the floor, clattering by the witch's foot. The witch picked it up, made a brief "hm," and turned it over in her hands. "There's a train through shortly that'll take you as far as the Leprous Duchies. You can get home from there without too much trouble. And yes, there's a bathroom on the train should you need it."

Leah shook her head. "What am I going to do with myself?" she whispered. "After—after all this—"

"Think of what you were before. Be that again." Leah caught her breath, trying to remember what her life was before she was her husband's wife and failed savior. "Or be something different; there's no reason not to," the witch went on. She crossed to the far side of the bench and held out the knife, handle first. "Take this."

It was a kitchen knife, wooden handle black from age and wrapped with string to hold it together. The edge had a couple of notches, but the rest of it looked keen. Leah recoiled from it. "You don't think—I won't need it, I'm sure, he'd never hurt me—" He'd said so, over and over, the reassurance fading with repetition.

The witch snorted. "I certainly hope not. The blade won't cut living flesh or living wood. Or living stone, for that matter, though I've never had cause to try. No," she added, "take it just so you don't come back empty-handed. To prove you made the journey."

Leah caught her breath, realizing that she'd already been preparing for what he would say when she returned—eight months away from me, you must really hate me, I thought you loved me, this is why, this is why. She held out her hand again, and the witch laid the knife in it.

A horn sounded, not a mechanical horn but a hunter's halloo, and the witch nodded to the door. "That'll be your train. Don't worry too much—legally speaking, it shouldn't be too hard, especially since you've been gone eight months."

Leah nodded and picked her way through the leaves and stones to the door. "A word of warning," the witch said as Leah reached the door, "about that knife."

Leah put her hand to the handle, felt it comforting under her fingers. She turned back and waited for the witch to speak.

The witch stood by her wall of knives, one hand touching the place where that one had been. "It's the sort of thing that might start a collection."

The horn blew again, closer. Finally Leah nodded, and smiled, and though there was an edge to it when the witch smiled back, it was a good edge, and sharp.

Knives by Aud Koch

Margaret Ronald is the author of Spiral Hunt, Wild Hunt, and Soul Hunt, as well as a number of short stories. Over the years, she has worked in fields from media to academia to biotech, usually on the margins where the view is better. Originally from small-town Indiana, she now lives outside Boston.
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