by Amanda Michele Hash
The three judges loved Kate, however much they regarded her as a simple, silly country hedgewitch. She’d been silly and country since they met as children at the start of their schooldays. On the evening of Walpurgisnacht, they reminisced on those old times as they sped out to the sun-washed countryside to pay a holiday visit to Kate.
Naturally, they took the town car. It was small, but large enough for them to change into their late afternoon clothes and get drinks from the tea room. It wouldn’t do to be flying around on brooms and horses and the like in broad daylight for Satan’s sake. The kind of air-headed thing Kate would do, they laughed together.
Nina traced the rim of her glass with a sugared lemon peel, already tipsy from the potent cocktail of dragon oil and liquid mercury. Like her companions, she was still quite young for a witch, but they were all among the most successful graduates of an impressive class of witches. A class that included Kate, who was not crafted for ambition, but who still proved an earnest friend and thereby earned their patronage.
“I hope Kate’s baked enough treats,” Damien sighed, cutting delicately into a piece of whale blubber. As a judge presiding over food and cultural activities, tonight’s Walpurgisnacht festival had been a project to outstrip any schoolboy spell work.
“It’s the biggest day of the year for witches around the world,” Nina pointed out. “I’d be surprised if we’re the only company she has today.”
Occasionally Kate would write to one of them, but not so much recently. Gretel had spoken to their old friend Johann that morning, who advised they should just leave her alone for she was obviously content out in the countryside. Of course, he said, she didn’t come see them in the city often, because the city wasn’t a place for a witch like Kate. But they were only going to pay a call and ask if she would accompany them to the peak of the Blocksberg that night.
“She does plan on going to the Blocksberg tonight, I hope,” Gretel said, taking a sip of her nightshade tea. Ah, but perhaps Kate did not even realize what an important day it was, and so all the better that they were going to visit.
Kate had always been an odd sort of witch, always charting the rotations of the koi fish while the rest of them mapped the night sky. Always trying to decipher what the gardens spoke to the sun or read the shapes of fungi. All she would eat for the first three years they knew her were grasses and seeds, the different types and combinations of which she kept drawn and labeled in her diary. Her soles were always like adamant because she could not fathom shoes while digging in the gardens, where she gathered ingredients for salves, which she gave to anyone and everyone with the instructions “do a coin on the back of your hand and rub it in good to get a euphoric effect” or “relief from your cold” or “the feeling of perfect fullness after a nice dinner” or “a very lovely tingling sensation.” To think she even thought humans companionable!
Of course, there were also the times that Kate was not around to be found because she’d wandered and fallen into some yet undiscovered place on the grounds, where she would be contentedly trapped until recovered by enterprising witches like themselves. (Such being how they discovered a static pocket realm placed by an ancient student into which students had been slipping for centuries–how they loved reminiscing on such times!)
When they arrived at Kate’s little cottage, they found her very much as they anticipated, out back tending to the voluminous mazes of flowers and leafy cacti, naturally in her bare feet. She was not perturbed or even much surprised that three judges from the city so brazenly entered her backyard, but she was delighted, overzealously so, as she believed in accepting whatever fortune happened to blow by. She hugged each of them and invited them in for snacks. Was it not exactly this quality that made Kate so lovely in spite of her outlandishness that was sometimes even too pronounced for the colorful magical community?
She brought them into her living room, which was also packed with plants that blossomed out of the walls and ceilings. Beneath all the green, the room was plushly outfitted, carpet and furniture soft as downy pillows. They sank two inches wherever they stepped or sat, and everywhere they could smell the perfumes of flowers and pink-veined leaves. Vines which obscured the walls fetched refreshments, teas, and chocolates of the most unlikely flavor combinations, handcrafted by Kate herself. Each sip or bite sparked a small jolt of euphoria.
They asked after her, she after them.
“Six months ago, I was promoted to head judge of magical affairs,” Nina said. “It’s an impressive position, but I don’t think any of us have been as successful as Gretel.”
Gretel sat primly, though she radiated pride. Not only in their class, but within the whole school, Gretel had been the most ambitious of them. Of all the most impressive students, teachers expected the most from Gretel. She said, “After years of overhauling most of the laws we have on record, I’ve just been named the head judge of human torture, temptation, and other deadly affairs.”
“That’s quite a title,” said Kate, glowing with admiration.
“So what’s kept you gone so long?” Damien asked.
Though the judges had at length speculated on what might be the cause of Kate’s absence, which seemed egregious even for her, all were so eager to find themselves embroiled in some plot that they did not anticipate her most characteristic response, which was both silly and simple.
“I’ve been gone?” she asked, dreamily rolling her head back to inspect the ceiling. “Funny, I was sure I just visited.”
“A year ago,” Nina reminded her. “You came for Johann’s homecoming and that was all the way back in the summer.”
“So it was,” Kate agreed, and then they talked for a bit about Johann and how they probably couldn’t expect him again until the summer after next, for he was finishing up a covert government mission whose details even Gretel, his closest friend, was not fully briefed on. They told Kate he was having fun seeing the local wildlife.
“Finally got to see a chimera like he’s always wanted,” Damien reported.
They persisted in asking what she had been up. Looking back to the vined ceiling as if trying to collect the past months, she said “There’s been an invasion of snails in my gardens, eating my tomatoes.”
“Nasty creatures,” Damien said. “You can kill them with a simple enough potion–”
“Oh no, not kill them. I talk them into eating the weeds instead. They are the loveliest little perfect spiral shapes, and so hungry. But I was simply about to go do some chores in the garden for most of the evening. I just got up, you see. I’ve found that prefer the nighttime to the day.”
“You and many a fine witch.” Damien toasted her.
Gretel said, “So then you’re planning on coming to the Blocksberg tonight?”
But to their shock, Kate desperately disavowed it. “Oh no, no, no! I’ve other plans tonight.”
“Plans!” Damien sputtered with laughter and outrage. “She says that she has other plans! Kate, what kind of batty thing has possessed you this time? Have you been cursed again?”
And she, witlessly brazen as she was, dared to laugh. Pulling up the sleeves of her sun-stitched robe, she presented her left hand to them. They all leaned in to absorb the spectacle of the humongous light-slicked black jewel on her finger.
“What does this mean?” Gretel demanded. The ring, it answered for itself, and yet posed infinite questions.
Kate was kind enough to explain. “Night is when my wife comes to visit me. Whenever the moon rises, I go out to wait for her. It might be as soon as the sun sinks or just before it rises, but she always comes for me.”
“Ah!” Gretel could not help but gasp a light laugh. “Ridiculous!”
“Killer ring, though,” Nina said, still examining it. She had a trustworthy eye and, if she was not mistaken, Kate’s black gem was laid in bone, and my did it look human. She should know, for she constantly coveted human jewelry, be they of bones, teeth, or skin.
“A woman who comes to you be moonlight,” Gretel continued. “A nighttime wife. Ha, ha! So what’s her name?”
“It’s Luna,” said Kate, undisturbed by her mockery.
“Of course.” Damien laughed. “Luna comes to you by moonlight.”
“Precisely so. You understand then. The nighttime is the only time I can see her, so I can’t be away on the Blocksberg of all things.”
Nina regarded her with some perturbation, even though this was entirely like Kate, always seeing imaginary cloud patterns and making odd declarations as she did. She held with strange ideas, but that’s why Nina felt so protective of her, unlike Damien who thought her a bit of a joke, or Gretel, who often wore a stink of superiority, even in her genuine efforts to assist. “So who exactly is she?” Nina prompted.
“Swamp gas?” Damien suggested.
“If you’d like to meet her, you can stay for dinner,” Kate suggested. “Oh, we can have a party!” The inspiration alighted in her wide eyes and caused a sudden flurry of movement throughout the room. “I always have dinner ready for her. I like to experiment with different herb combinations. I’ll make more chocolates! I’m always making chocolates, because Luna has the biggest sweet tooth.” Vines offered them plates from the kitchen to prove examples of Kate’s culinary worth. Suddenly she disappeared into another room and re-emerged with a bouquet of roses, as if what the room really needed was more flowers. She handed them to the vines, which snaked them away to the kitchen.
“I can make a full dinner,” she said. “Soup and bread and meat and dessert. I just have to go out back and kill a few chickens.”
“Don’t waste all of your fowl on us,” Gretel said.
“Oh, they’ll come back by the time we’re done eating them,” promised Kate with a laugh.
As she went out back, the others discussed whether they should stay for Kate’s dinner. Damien thought it might be good for a laugh, and Nina wanted to see that someone was not taking advantage of Kate, but Gretel roundly disabused them both of the notion. “We have to fly out to the highest mountain peak tonight! We don’t have time for this nonsense, and neither does Kate. She should be coming with us tonight!”
Damien said, “We have all night to get there. It doesn’t even get good until much later, and Kate said her woman often comes right at sunset. I think we can afford to sit around and have some dinner with them.” He wouldn’t say so, but he was never one to turn down a meal, and he quite enjoyed Kate’s weird chocolates, and he wanted to see what she was doing to that chicken and whether it involved the roses. He chuckled. “Imagine. Kate and some bandit of a wife.”
Gretel asked for Nina’s opinion, and Nina reiterated she only wanted to meet this woman because she had a strange gut feeling, though she was very much in doubt such a person actually existed. By the time Kate returned, they’d decided there was no harm in staying for dinner, but they would not remain past nine.
Not having to worry about doing the actual cooking because “the kitchen will take care of all that,” Kate rejoined them momentarily and invited them outside to see the lengths of her gardens and the sunset on the hill outside the property. The gardens proved more of a tropical jungle and hiking through them was something of a journey. By the time they were dispatched onto the hill, the sun was bleeding its finale across the sky. Kate sat cross-legged on the grass with her skirt spread like a picnic blanket, not caring that others chose to stand, aside from Nina, who knelt. When the last bit of light descended, leaving the world colder and less effervescent, all the judges held their breaths, half-believing that a woman would truly unfold herself from the crest of the hill. When she failed to do so, they were able to laugh a little, reassured that it was only Kate being as batty as ever.
“I don’t know if your girlfriend’s coming after all,” Damien said.
“My wife,” Kate corrected, trailing one finger unconsciously over her ring. “And of course not, not here! She’ll be meeting me back at the house. Let’s go!”
If they had any concerns about returning through Kate’s gardens at night–and they did not, for they all considered themselves quite magically capable–Kate revealed that she had a portal passageway that would get them back to the cottage in seconds, though she apologized because she did not think it such a scenic route.
Back at the cottage, Kate set her porch on fire. The flame didn’t eat into the wood, nor did it have a noise or smell, but it emitted a friendly heat and came nearer or further depending on the person’s temperature. It had grown into a pleasantly freezing night. From where they sat, grouped together, identifying the stars and gossiping about the kids of their youth, the smell of dinner cooking inside and the honeyed flowers, sweet like wine, danced with the flames. Kate offered them breads and chocolates and crackling seeds to put over the fire, which the flames obligingly scorched.
Even Gretel had to admit that it was pleasant in the fresh night wind of the countryside with the comforts of hedge magic and the silence of the dark, but she stressed to Kate the importance that they be out by a decent hour. She would certainly not waste this night entertaining fantasies. Kate, ever serene, said that it was fine if they started dinner, for she could put up a plate for Luna, who was not the type to mind.
Nina was thinking that it was such a shame to leave the pleasant view of the Walpurgisnacht moon, and how intoxicating was the amber fire sweeping a protective but distant circle as they rose to their feet. She took a single last glance at the pregnant moon, which all evening had swollen by the moment in the cloudless night sky until it now resembled a great watching face. Entranced by its shimmering light, it took her a moment to see the sole figure that was moving against the stationary landscape. But once she saw it, she could not distract her gaze long enough to speak. After some examination, she concluded that this person was moving toward the house at an unprecedented speed, protected from the chill by a long black-hooded cloak–but good Lord, unless the nighttime was deceiving her, this had to be the tallest person Nina had ever seen!
From behind her, Kate exclaimed, “Oh, look, Luna’s arrived after all!”
This person, this Luna, came to the edge of the property quickly enough for Nina to learn that, no, she had not been mistaken. This was well the tallest creature she had seen standing on two feet, aside from giants and ogres. A glance over at Gretel and Damien informed her they were similarly perplexed.
The cloaked figure offered a smoothly-gloved hand to Kate, who laughed and then pulled herself up for a hug, simultaneously pushing back the hood, allowing a black wave of hair to spill forth.
Over Kate’s exclamations, Gretel gasped. What in the great rings of hell was Kate thinking! This absurdly tall woman with her snakelike eyes and bloodless skin…this was a devouring demoness! And Kate was leading it into her home, promising it a refreshing dinner!
Probably Damien and Nina didn’t know what she was, didn’t have any reason to believe that such a thing existed, seeing as they followed it inside with looks of curiosity. Gretel followed behind them, but more cautiously. She had witnessed enough classified documentation to realize the danger. And God, wasn’t it just like Kate that she would tangle herself up in something so unlikely all the way out in the quiet of nowhere!
“Now this is a surprise,” the monster was telling the others. All had been invited into the foyer, though Gretel hovered near the doorway. This time, the flowers and vines stayed perfectly stationary, as though dead, and Gretel wondered if they were frightened. Kate would be hostessing on her own, and as such she declared that she had one or two more things to prepare in the kitchen, leaving them abruptly alone with the demon. It watched Kate’s retreat until her shadow had withered entirely, and then turned the full force of its hellfire gaze onto them.
To look at the monster, one might think the smile was friendly, and certainly one would think it was beautiful, which was one of the great dangers of demons. The other and greater dangers were that they would eat anything with a soul, and magic was little protection for an intended victim. In fact, the more magical a soul, the more delicious, or so the hypothesis went based on the limited knowledge of demons who wandered outside the confines of Hell.
In spite of is beauty, which was beyond magic, beyond even nature or the universe itself, Nina and Damien grew visibly uneasy under its stare. Perhaps they recognized the predator contraction of the eye. Perhaps it was the realization of the hulking shape, which seemed to inflate by the moment, as did tonight’s moon.
The creature’s smile spread. A wolf’s smile. There was no doubt now of the shadow that loomed over the room. “Kate did not mention we would be having you for dinner,” it remarked. Its smile expanded even more than the rest of it, the corners of the lips sharp as the tooth and claw of an ancient lion.
“We’re old friends from school,” Damien explained brazenly, in spite of his fear, which even they could smell, so naturally it could too. “We came here for a surprise visit to Kate.”
“How thoughtful of you. Kate rarely gets any visitors except me. I think we’ll all grow quite familiar with each other.”
“Actually,” said Gretel. “We were just readying to leave as we have other plans tonight. You.” She made a gesture to spur the others to action, superstitious of invoking their names.
All the while, the demon’s lips had spread into a thin, well-sliced line. “No, please stay. We’re so lucky to have you.” Its mouth formed a crooked stitch all the way to the ears, waxy lips spreading to reveal rows of anglerfish teeth. It got to its feet. Though it should not have had room to erect itself to its fullest size, the ceiling seemed to have retreated into darkness.
Through its jaws, it crooned at them. “Nooo…stay. We’d love to have you over to eat.”
Its voice was an unanticipated drop from the road into a fiery gorge. Hearing it, they felt their stomachs leave them. Their bodies were next, then their vision. All senses surrendered to the gaze of the towering beast.
In the midst of the darkness that spun a constellation round that thing’s fish-eyed vampire visage, Gretel’s brain was able to alight some self-defense mechanism. She focused on the door and conjured enough magic from the very core of her numb body to incinerate it in purple flames. Enough starlight glittered through that the others broke from their trance.
They streaked into the night like comets, each mumbling their own spell of protection between hysteric breaths. They reached the town car, weeping because it would never outstrip Hell itself, wishing fervently they’d chosen to fly.
Not until they were out of the country and into the woods did any of them dare speak. The one who did so, hesitantly, was Nina. “Should we…should we go back for Kate?”
“Kate has made her own choices!” Gretel barked without tearing her eyes from the road down which she raced. That was the last that would be said of the silly, simple, country hedgewitch.
When Kate returned, she found Luna in the room alone, sipping contentedly at a freshly-heated cup of tea. The door that had been turned to ashes provided an explanation.
“Luna!” she sighed. “Please tell me you didn’t.” She’d put on her nice apron and everything!
But Luna was unperturbed, pouring Kate some tea from the ghoul-bone pot with a docile, pink-lipped smile.
“They had somewhere to be tonight,” Luna explained. “So we’ll have all the more time to ourselves. Unfortunate, because I cannot stay with you until dawn. I must go off.”
Kate was disappointed to hear that she would be abandoned twice in one night. She asked, “Where do you need to go?”
“There is to be a feast tonight, and I’m expected.”
“I hope that I’ve not made too much food then,” Kate fretted, but Luna reassured her that she could eat her fill and still be hungry later. After all, she mused as Kate wove her spells for fairy music and romantic lighting, it was a different fare she would be enjoying when she made her appearance on the Blocksberg. Perhaps, if she was lucky, she would get to know Kate’s friends better after all.