Disclosure: I received product at no charge in exchange for my honest review.HOUSEWITCH by Katie Schickel is a magical story of a modern-day housewife whose life takes a wild turn. Allison Darling tries to keep her secret close, but events around her keep threatening to reveal her true identity. This book is enchanting and I highly recommend it! Get it HERE!
For every evil under the sun
There is a remedy or there is none.
If there be one, seek till you find it;
If there be none, never mind it.
Misery Shoal, Massachusetts • 1945
“Where’s Papa?” Aurora asked as the sisters made their way across the mudflats and into the marsh.
“Papa’s gone,” Freya said, swatting at cattails, scattering their velvety seeds into the air.
A dense fog had rolled in from the sea. It shrouded Misery Shoal in a coat of gray, and brought with it the smell of winter.
“Where’s he gone to?” Aurora asked.
“Never mind. He’s just gone.” Freya’s red hair shined like a flame against the brittle landscape. She was the middle child, and the most beautiful of the sisters.
Somewhere a ship’s horn belched through the stillness, and this made the girls alert, for they were unaccustomed to the sounds of Commoners at the shoal.
The oldest sister, Wilhemena, lifted the cauldron with both hands, tucking her elbows into her sides for leverage. It reminded Freya of the way she’d seen her father lift the cod and haddock to measure at the Derby Street Pier. Those fish could weigh up to fifty pounds and stand as tall as Freya herself. Even a strong man like her father had a hard time raising the hand scale high enough to clear the tails off the ground. His biceps, the tendons in his forearms, straining under the weight, his face pinched in anticipation while the fishmonger read the scale.
“When’s he coming back?” Aurora asked.
“He ain’t,” Freya said.
“Hush now. That’s just more of your nonsense,” Wilhemena said.
Aurora frowned. Although Papa was often at sea, she couldn’t imagine never seeing him ever again. She turned to Wilhemena’s wisdom on the matter. “Is it true? Is Papa never comin’ home?”
“Of course it isn’t true,” Wilhemena said. She braced the cauldron against her stomach to keep the water from spilling out. “Let’s hurry on home. Before the tide turns.”
Misery Shoal was a spit of land shaped like a crow’s claw, formed by centuries of longshore waves dragging sand and sediment southward. At high tide the neck of the shoal slunk underwater, making it impassable. Nautical maps warned sailors of its shifting nature with a black “XXX.” Only the Ellylydan family called it home.
Freya and Aurora skipped after Wilhemena, stopping now and then to inspect a mud crab or pry open a clam in search of pearls. Aurora had heard stories of the pearl divers in Japan and found exquisite possibilities in an unopened mollusk.
“Freya, hurry up,” Wilhemena called. “Come along now, Aurora.”
Freya ignored her. She had captured a pickerel frog and was teasing it with a thatch of goldenrod. She shoved the frog into the pocket of her apron and squeezed, the poor creature clambering up the thin cotton, only to be squashed by Freya’s fingers each time.
Up ahead, Wilhemena slowed her pace and clucked her tongue. There was work to be done. And even though her sisters were younger and more easily distracted by childish things, she expected them to at least try and work as hard as she.
Wilhemena yelled to Freya, who was crouching by a rock, “Watch the baby for me. I’m going up ahead.”
“She ain’t a baby anymore,” Freya said. “Why are you always treating her like a little baby?”
“Mind your tongue,” Wilhemena snapped. “Just watch after her.”
Freya rolled her eyes and went back to torturing her frog.
As Wilhemena disappeared through the reeds, Aurora, who at four really wasn’t a baby anymore and felt no more like a baby than her sisters, tromped barefoot into the spongy grass to get a better look at a water beetle.
“There’s snakes in there,” Freya called out. “Look. There’s some moving the grass.”
Aurora feared nothing of earthly creatures. Hexes, yes. Enchantments, definitely. For those were real. Snakes were far too interesting to be feared. She watched the reeds part and snap back to their vertical postures. “Just a muskrat,” Aurora said, to which Freya replied, “It’ll eat you up with its big fangs.”
Aurora stopped to consider that scenario. She wasn’t sure if Freya, being a whole year older and wiser to the world, might know something about muskrats that she had yet to discover. As far as she had seen, muskrats ate marsh plants and mussels and left little girls alone.
“You sure?” Aurora asked.
“Oh yes,” Freya answered. “They start with your nose and work down. A girl was eaten by a muskrat just last week. All’s they found left was her skull.”
Aurora decided to resolve the matter with Wilhemena, who at eight, was even wiser to the world than Freya. She started walking, but as the thought of the little-girl-eating muskrat took shape in her mind, she quickened her pace until she was running as fast as she could through the marsh. By the time she made it to the creek, her doom seemed inevitable and she didn’t notice the thistle patch until she ran right through it, taking a whipping against bare legs. She cried out.
Wilhemena ran to her, scooping Aurora into her arms. “It’s okay, little one. I’ll fix you up.” Wilhemena pulled the burrs out of Aurora’s skin. She found some bright green ribwort and chewed it into a pulp, then applied the salve onto Aurora’s leg. Later that night she would make a poultice of soaked burdock leaves to draw out any infection.
When Freya caught up to them, she crossed her arms, a smile on her lips.
“Can a muskrat eat me up?” Aurora asked.
“Nonsense,” Wilhemena said. There was no doubt about who would put such a thought in a little girl’s head. “Freya, don’t be so hateful.”
When Wilhemena turned around to lift the cauldron, Freya took the opportunity to pinch Aurora on the arm. Aurora screeched, thinking at first that the muskrat had bitten her, but it was only Freya. Crying, she knew, would invite more punishment.
Rather, she pulled out the heavy artillery. “I’ll tell Papa on you.”
“Papa will wring your neck if he hears that you’re scaring your little sister,” Wilhemena said.
“You needn’t worry about Papa,” Freya replied, a look of contempt crossing her face.
Wilhemena opened her mouth to argue but there was work to be done. “Follow me,” she said and led her sisters along the creek bed to the beach where they could find firewood.
The three girls gathered driftwood, fragments of lobster traps, boards from battered ships. Tucked behind a washed-up slab of concrete they spotted a patch of wild raspberries still clinging to thorny branches, miraculously undetected by birds. They dropped their wood and feasted on the last of the season’s berries. When they had picked the bush bare, Wilhemena broke off a few branches and bundled them up with the wood. Red raspberry was known to aid in digestion and to keep malevolent spirits at bay.
The whole excursion had taken close to an hour and in the fog and ebbing light, the line between sky and sea had all but disappeared.
* * *
When the girls returned to the ridge, their mother, Elizabeth, was preparing the lye. It was the waxing crescent of the hunter’s moon—the time to make soap. Carefully, she poured water into an ash hopper. A thin, brown trail dripped out of the bottom of the hopper and into a bucket. This was the potash lye for the soap. You could buy lye at the general store in town, you could even buy soap, but Elizabeth said the devil made work for idle hands. She made her own lye from the ashes collected in their fires. “Just like in the Old Ways,” she’d say.
The wind shifted and sent smoke in Freya’s direction. She fanned it away. Freya understood the Old Ways as something tangible, not just a time and place, but a way of being that involved herbs and stories and the potions that bound the two together.
The Old Ways meant toil.
Making their own candles and spinning their own wool were part of the Old Ways. Seasons revolved around such tasks: spring for planting, summer for picking and pickling, and then there was the fall.
Fall was for slaughtering.
Fattened pigs were slaughtered, their meat cured, their fat rendered: lard from the pigs, tallow from the cattle. The purified fat was stored in barrels for cooking throughout the year, and for making soap.
Elizabeth finished the lye, and sat her girls down, youngest to oldest, on a semicircle of tree stumps. She stoked the fire with driftwood and shagbark, watching the flames rise higher and higher, changing the substance of the wood from earth to fire. Element to element.
Damp and sticky with marsh water, the girls held their hands up to the fire to warm.
Freya opened the pocket of her apron and peeked at the frog that now sat limp and lifeless.
“You’ve worked hard today,” Elizabeth said. “We shan’t go cold this winter.” She opened a picnic basket she had brought from the house and laid out a dinner of rolls and jars of homemade jams and butter.
The girls ate while Elizabeth set up the tools for making soap. She hung the cauldron from a metal tripod over the flames and organized the supplies—salt, lavender, and the fat for rendering. Then she began the day’s Lesson.
“Who can tell me: What’s the fattest part of an animal? The belly? The buttocks? The haunches?”
Freya thought back to her father lifting the cods on the hand scales at the Derby Street Pier. She thought of the massive biceps and the sun on his skin, the sweat running down to his shirt, leaving wet marks under his armpits. “The arms,” she said, certain of her answer.
Wilhemena ventured a guess. “The thighs?”
“Tummy?” asked Aurora.
“Very good, my little witches,” Elizabeth said. “Those are all correct. We use all the parts. Waste not, want not, my dear little witches. Waste not, want not.”
Elizabeth unwrapped the fat from butcher paper smeared with grease and blood. With Papa’s fillet knife, she sliced the substance into chunks and dropped a piece into the cauldron.
She handed a chunk of the substance to Freya, but Freya refused it.
“Do what must be done, Freya,” Elizabeth said.
“My turn, my turn,” Aurora said, grabbing for the gristle.
“No,” Elizabeth said, pulling it away. “This is Freya’s job.”
“Why don’t I ever get to do nothing?” Aurora whined.
“Because you are the youngest. And the most special,” Elizabeth said. This didn’t bother Wilhemena. She was old enough to know that little white lies were a mother’s way.
Elizabeth turned her attention back to Freya, her expression shifting as severely as the north wind. “You must make the best of what you’ve done. The job must be finished.”
Freya sneered. She crossed her arms. Then, slowly, she reached for the substance and dropped it in the cauldron. It entered the water with a plop and splattered bits of meat and oil onto Freya’s apron. She brushed at her apron, her face contorted in disgust.
“All of it,” Elizabeth said sternly.
Freya added the rest of the substance to the water, lump by lump.
As the water boiled, the fat melted and an oily sheen formed on the surface. Rendering was a slow process. It required heat and patience and know-how.
Eventually, Aurora grew tired. Rubbing her eyes, she crawled onto Wilhemena’s lap and fell asleep.
A bitter cold settled in as the night wore on, so Wilhemena walked Aurora back down the ridge to the house and through the kitchen where bundles of drying herbs hung from the ceiling. In the pantry, jars of tonics and extractions lined the shelves: pokeweed in wine, borage in honey, great fluffy leaves of mullein in alcohol.
She tucked Aurora into her warm feather bed and went back to the kitchen to fetch a bundle of dried rosemary. Rosemary was known to the Ellylydan women to soothe the mind and stir the memory. Wilhemena swished the rosemary over her sleeping sister and sang,
Wake up bright
In the morning light,
To do what’s right
With all your might.”
With her little sister sound asleep, Wilhemena left the house and walked back up the doe path in darkness toward the ridge. Melting fat overtook all the other smells of the shoal, the wet clay, the salt air, the coming winter.
All at once, Wilhemena stopped. She sensed something. Fear? Danger? She wasn’t sure. She could feel it prickling her skin the way you feel yourself falling in a dream without being able to stop. Up ahead, Freya and Elizabeth peered into the cauldron, their faces lit up by the flames. They were whispering.
It was the clandestine way in which her mother and sister now spoke that frightened Wilhemena. As far as she knew, there were no secrets in her family. They all learned the same Lessons; they all worked together and played together, ate the same meals, practiced the same spells. She tiptoed closer to the fire until she was in hearing distance.
“All the impurities sink to the bottom. All the evil is washed away,” Elizabeth said. “And we’ll take that impure water and throw it back into the swamp, to settle with the cress and hawthorns. It will sink into the sludge where the gadflies lay their eggs. All we’re left with is the purity. Tomorrow we’ll mix in the lye and make our soap. To wash away your sins. To make you magic again. To make you whole.”
“Will the soap make me pure, Mama?” Freya asked.
“The soap will hide what you don’t want others to see. The soap will cast glamour over the eye. Do you know what glamour is, Freya?”
“Glamour is an enchantment. It’s a way of making people see things that aren’t so.”
“Like a lie?”
“Not exactly a lie.”
“A tall tale, then?”
“More like a deception. It’s something that isn’t all the way true, and it isn’t all the way untrue. Just as the times in between times are neither past nor future. The not times, we call them. The in-between time. Dusk, dawn, midnight, new moon, full moon. These are the not times when doors to the other worlds are open, and when the magic is most potent. These are the times when you must become whole.”
“Aren’t I whole all the time, Mama?”
“We are all made up of darkness and light. Your darkness is more powerful. You are out of balance. You must transform from the dark to the light. Do you understand?”
Freya wiggled her heel into the moist ground. “I reckon so.”
“Always remember this: There is no greater magic than to transform one thing into another.”
“I understand,” said Freya.
Elizabeth stood to gather more wood. Wilhemena got up from her hiding spot and joined Freya at the fire.
She wanted to ask what the conversation was about. Why had Mama taught Freya about glamour and not her? And why was it a secret? As her mind tackled the questions, Wilhemena noticed a bulge in the pocket of Freya’s apron.
“What have you got in your pocket?”
“Nothing,” Freya said.
“I can see you got something in there.”
“It’s none of your concern.”
“Freya, you show me what you’ve got hiding in there right now, or I’ll give you a spanking myself before Mama does.”
Freya was about to argue, when Wilhemena reached into the pocket, as quick as a flash, and pulled the dead pickerel frog out.
“Hey, that’s mine,” Freya said.
“How long has this frog been dead?”
“It’s not dead.”
Wilhemena held it out by its motionless front legs to prove her point.
“You shouldn’t kill innocent creatures, Freya. It’s wasteful. Now go put this frog in the icebox so we can use it for bait. Waste not, want not.” She tossed the frog to her sister.
Freya thought a moment, her anger veiled behind calm eyes. Then she tossed the frog back. “You go put it in the icebox. You’re the one wants to keep it so bad.”
Wilhemena wrapped the frog in a leaf and carried it back down the doe path to the house, where she climbed the splintered steps to the porch. She lifted the top of the icebox, which was filled, as always, with packages of meat wrapped in butcher paper. She put the frog on top of a package and lowered the lid. Something caught her eye. She opened the lid again.
There was a hand poking out of a package at the bottom. She was sure it was a hand. The hand of a man. The wedding band glistening in the hazy moonlight.
Copyright © 2015 by Katie Schickel
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