Matthew knew something was bothering his mother. Sitting on the edge of the loft, his thin legs dangling over her head, he watched her bustling around the fireplace, busily preparing a supper that wouldn’t be needed for another several hours. After a while, he noticed how small the portions were. She must have been just preparing a single meal for one of the widows she liked to look after. But she seemed so agitated.
Actually, he wasn’t surprised. His father’s concerns must be infectious. Snowfall had been pretty sparse over the winter and they were starting to feel the lack of water. Still, it really wasn’t that bad. Not bad enough to worry about a total crop failure, anyway. There was a little concern that there would be raiders; the only strangers anyone had seen on the road were usually just pilgrims or merchants. A priest had come into the village just a couple days ago. Priests usually didn’t travel if it was too dangerous. But still, his father was a worrier, always had been, and his mother was sympathetic. That must be it.
She glanced up at him, worry still shining in her eyes, but she forced a smile and asked, “Matthew, could you go see if there is any ripe summer squash yet?”
He wondered if she really wanted it, or if she just wanted him to stop staring at her. Something was up. He obediently stood and crossed to the back of the loft that his family slept in, clambering down the ladder and passing through the main room without comment. When Mother was worried, she didn’t like idle chatter. He opened the door and stepped out into the sunshine. Coughing raggedly into his sleeve, he went around to the back of the cottage, his bare feet sinking little prints into the dust path. His mother always kept a large garden behind the house that she tended when she wasn’t occupied with other chores. Ten-year-old Matthew, just recovering from a fever, was the perfect little slave child to free her up for her beloved garden. Though he had never imagined himself thinking this before, he could hardly wait to get back out into the fields with his father and siblings. Even staying the day with his mother’s parents, as the toddler Mary was, would have been preferable to the stifling walls of the house.
Approaching it, Matthew decided that the garden seemed a little wilted, bending submissively under the harsh sunlight of the early afternoon. He passed through tall stalks of corn and sunflower, brushed his fingers along the richly-scented tomato leaves and stepped over a few squat rows of potato. The radishes remained small, but the summer squash, his mother’s prize plant, was flourishing under her tender care. He poked around under the broad leaves until he found a reasonable sized specimen. He broke it off at the stem and crossed back through the garden, stepping over spinach and lettuce, skirting the patch of rhubarb and passing over onions and carrots. He reached up to run his fingers through the leaves of the young crab-apple tree and made his way back around the bare side of the cottage, thinking about how much smaller the garden seemed this year and what that would mean for this winter.
Matthew’s mother was waiting for him when he opened the door. She wordlessly took the squash. As she glanced at him, he was a little perplexed to realize that she wasn’t necessarily worried: she was undecided. That made a little more sense, he decided. But what was she deciding?
He went back up into the loft and sat down to watch her again.
She sighed. “Matthew, do you have to watch me like that?”
He apologized and came back down from the loft. He paused by the table and asked, “Can I go hunt for rabbits?”
She turned to him and reached her decision quite suddenly, as if his question had been a sign she was watching for. “Be back in an hour,” she said firmly, all the worry and hesitancy replaced by determination.
Unsure what else to say, he hesitantly took his sling and left the house.
Walking down the road, he worried about his mother. She was acting so strange, and he knew he behaved strangely in return, increasing the awkwardness. Whatever she had decided, he knew it had to do with him. That way she kept looking at him over the last couple days: it was unnerving. He knew she would never do him harm and trusted her judgment completely, but he was dying to know what was on her mind.
He stopped by the streambed to pick up a handful of smooth stones, stuffing them into the pockets on his belt. Really, there wasn’t much he could do in an hour, but maybe he would be lucky. Besides, a successful hunt might prove to his parents that he was well enough to return to the fields. They had nearly lost him last week and he knew they were still concerned, but he was desperate to get out of the house and back to normal life.
He glanced back at the village as he slipped into the surrounding woods. Normal life… Matthew was born and raised in the same village that his parents were born and raised in, and his grandparents. Named Clearwater for all the rivers and streams, there were a few hundred people that lived there regularly, another hundred or so living in the surrounding woods. It laid alongside one of the main routes to the Sanctuary of Saraven, so there were lots of pilgrims and priests that passed along the road, and a fair number of merchants and peddlers that served the towns along the way and the Sanctuary itself. He didn’t live in a country; the area wasn’t anything more than a broad expanse of city-states that generally left one another alone. There were other large countries around them, but nobody had tried to invade the area for centuries. There was certainly an abundance of raiders, especially from the north, but things had been plentiful the last decade or so, and they had also left the people alone. It was a good time to be alive, Matthew decided. He spotted a nervous flash of fur darting for the underbrush and slung off a stone at it, missing entirely. He glanced at the sun. He still had plenty of time.
Really, this was the worst year so far in Matthew’s life. Compared to some of the other droughts and plagues that occasionally tore through the population, it was still a reasonably abundant time, though not quite plentiful. His father worried, but few of the other villagers were as concerned.
But why was his mother being so strange? What had she decided?
Matthew flung another stone into a brier patch, hoping to scare out a few rabbits. Two ran out into the open and he tried for the closer one, coming much closer this time. Still a miss, though. He sighed. He was too distracted. Or maybe his parents were right and he was still sick. He slung a few more stones into possible hiding places as he hummed tunelessly.
Matthew lived with his two parents and six surviving siblings, three of which were from his father’s previous marriage. While he had two older brothers, he was his mother’s oldest, and her only son. Anyone could see that she loved her own children more than her predecessor’s, but nobody blamed her and she wasn’t cruel about it. There was just an understanding. She did everything in her power to further the wellbeing of her son and two daughters, looking after her stepchildren only a little less fiercely. She was a good stepmother, an excellent mother, and an ardently devoted wife. Only twenty-six years old, she was strong and passionate, living with an intensity that could be both charming and intimidating. It was the same with all the women of her family, until time and hardship wore them down to gentle old grandmothers that never quite lost their zeal for dancing and gardening.
Another stone bounced off a hollow stump and a brown rabbit threw itself across Matthew’s path, startling him by its closeness. He caught it squarely on the spine, disabling its hind legs. It started screaming, that eerie wail that the child was sure he could never get used to. Using his hunting knife, he finished the small creature quickly, then skinned and gutted it with a practiced hand. He smiled with pride. Surely they would now see that he was better and ready to return to work. He glanced up at the sun through the sparse trees. He had never been very good at telling time by the sun, but he had a rough idea and decided that he should start heading back soon. He laid the bloody little creature out on the wet skin and poked around through the guts, pulling out the things his mother could use, and then wrapped everything up in the fur and started back. He washed his hands and knife at the stream, returned the remaining pebbles, and jogged the rest of the way home.
His mother was impatient with how long he had been gone, but was glad for the meat. She thanked him and quickly cubed half of the meat, throwing it into the soup she had set to boil for supper. The rest was filleted and seared, then salted to help it keep through the heat until tomorrow. She worked quickly, as if she had somewhere to be, and Matthew noted that the small meal-for-one was ready and packaged. He looked up at his mother. She was watching him, a little indecision creeping back into her eyes. He knew that she must be deciding what to tell him. After all, she had already made up her mind about that other thing and there was no returning from that. Finally she settled with a sigh and gently exclaimed, “Oh, my son!”
“What is wrong, Mother?”
“Nothing, Matthew. Go get a few eggs for me.”
A little disappointed, he went back outside and headed down the opposite side of the house toward the chicken coup. Normally, his mother wasn’t this secretive. She was the kind of woman that said what was on her mind and dealt with the consequences; it nearly got her killed during the last witch scare, but she just couldn’t seem to keep her tongue under control. To have her suddenly so reticent was a little frightening.
Matthew let himself into the coup and made his way through the pale muck to the hen house. A few of the chickens clucked their protests at his intrusion, but only the cock was brave enough to truly scream at him. He kicked the rooster away and the bird left him alone, going to sulk behind the hen house. Matthew tugged the crooked door of the hen house open, paused to let a little of the heat out before he went in. It smelled like warm hay and chicken droppings, a scent pleasant with familiarity. His mother’s mood was making him agitated. He approached the hens, lined up in staggered rows of nests along far wall, shooing them away as he wondered how many ‘a few’ was. If she wanted two, she would have said ‘a couple’. Few was less than several, which he generally took to be seven, but more than a couple, but… She didn’t specify and he worried that he would do something wrong, though he wasn’t sure what that would mean. There were only three at the time, so that settled that. Taking them out into the bright sunlight, he briefly checked them for chicks and took them all. Cradling them in the hem of his shirt, he went back to the house and, after checking them herself, she seemed satisfied.
He glanced at the food again as she turned to put the eggs in a small kettle of boiling water. The little meal, so carefully prepared and wrapped, was getting cold. What was she doing? The widows she usually fed lived together just a quarter hour’s walk away. She could have gone and returned before he came back from rabbit hunting, even had time for a short visit. Why was she waiting? Straightening, his mother sighed briskly, her hands on her hips, and turned to examine him. He withstood her scrutiny with an uncertain smile, being sure she could see how clean his hands were. She smiled back, the first sincere smile he’d seen on her face in days.
“My sweet boy,” she murmured, hugging him tightly. He fiercely returned the affection, letting her know how much he loved her, how devoted he was to her. She released before he did, but didn’t push him away like she sometimes did. After a short time, she asked in singsong, “Matthew, my angel, can I have my body back?”
He squeezed more tightly and shouted, “Never, never, never!”
Laughing, she heaved him up and settled his growing bulk on her hip, dancing up and down the middle of the room to an imaginary fast-paced romp, the both of them laughing hysterically. He was too big for it to last forever, as he wished it would. She set him back down, her eyes luminous and certain again. This was the mother he knew, this bright and vivacious creature sparkling with life and love. Gently pinching his cheek, she commanded cheerfully, “Go put on your very best clothes, Matthew. We’re going to pay someone very special a visit.”
So it wasn’t one of the widows… He smiled pleadingly, silently begging for more information, but his mother turned with a mysterious smile to check on the eggs. Groaning but happy again, he scrambled back up the ladder and stripped naked. He enjoyed the relative coolness of bare skin in the heat of the loft for a few moments as he dug through his chest for his worship clothing, finally tugging out a heap of formal black cloth. He shook out the dust and wrinkles, then wriggled into the clothing. It was starting to get too small for him. He would have to inherit one of Michael’s outfits again soon. He did take one of Michael’s belts, fastening it around the waist of the tunic and pausing to polish the tin buckle with his sleeve. He put on his shoes usually worn only in winter, and climbed back down to where his mother was fishing the eggs out of the kettle to cool on the table. She went upstairs to change into her best as well and came down shortly wearing the fine sable silk gown that had been nearly half of her dowry. Watching her carefully make her way down the ladder, Matthew smiled at her. He thought her the most beautiful woman in the world, though he would never have said that aloud. He thought of the poetry his mother sometimes read to the children late at night, but couldn’t find any stanza that fit his mother’s brand of magnificence. Did all little boys have such fine mothers?
He didn’t have to say anything. She could see the worship in his eyes. Smiling, she patted the top of his head and took a basket off a peg in the wall. She put the meal inside, wrapping and inserting the eggs as well. “Ready?”
He nodded, opening the door for her. “Ready.” He was tempted to ask who they were going to see, but decided not to. She was in a capricious mood and he dared not tempt her out of her good humor.
He offered her his arm like he had seen his father when they went walking, and she accepted gracefully. He was sure they made a splendid pair promenading down the street, garbed in formal ebony. There weren’t many people to see them at this time of day, but a few of the homebound matrons, whether for the babies or the sick or the old, were outside gardening or baking or washing or sweeping. They smiled at the passing pair. There was that entrancing, frightening Amelia and her boy Matthew, certainly her firstborn and heir. Even those that didn’t like them found themselves thinking, ‘What an enchanting couple.’
Just as the novelty of the stroll was wearing off, Matthew realized they were leaving town. This revived his interest. Who could be special and live outside the village? All the rich ones and the politicians were in town. The only people that lived out of town were a few scattered rural farmers, a handful of antisocial hermits, and those that had been driven out of town: the crazies, witches and thieves. Could they be seeing one of the priests on the road maybe? Finally, Matthew tentatively asked, “Mother dear?”
“Yes, little one?” she asked, not a ripple on the tranquil surface of her emotions.
“Who are we going to see?”
She glanced down at him: that hesitance again. After a long pause, she answered slowly, “One of the women out here has fallen ill. We are going to bring her a meal and comfort.”
Matthew nodded. His mother was a charitable woman, one of the few reasons that she hadn’t been driven out of town herself on a few occasions. It wasn’t uncommon for her to take some of their surplus to the destitute or ailing. But she still hadn’t said who. The further they got from town, the more curious Matthew became. It wasn’t any of the farmers. They were all along the river further down the valley. Who were they going to see? And how had his mother known that someone had fallen ill? He glanced over at her. She wasn’t entirely opposed to lying, if the situation called for it in her eyes. While he may have fully trusted her actions and her intents, he was still left to wonder once in a while at her words. Was someone really sick?
“Stop staring at me, Matthew,” she ordered. Sensing the edge in her voice, he quickly stared forward, silently begging the gods to keep her happy. The incident passed without further agitation. Matthew watched the path ahead of them. It looked like it hadn’t been used in quite a few years by anything but wildlife. Peering off into the woods at their right, his mother slowed and finally stopped. She hesitated a moment and then lifted her skirts above her ankles, leading Matthew into the forest. He glanced over at her uncertainly. Did she really know where she was going? He doubted there was anyone living out here in the middle of nowhere, but why else would she have insisted on their best clothing? For her sake, he worried that the dress might snag on a branch or thorn and tear the precious material. But his mother had spent her entire childhood capering through the woods for wild harvests and for sport. She had skills out here that he couldn’t yet comprehend. She led him in strange directions that kept their clothing unmarred and their shoes clean, though how she knew how to find them was, in Matthew’s mind, simply another aspect of his mother’s radiance. He suspected that it was part of that woman’s white magic that his father talked about when he drank too much.
After nearly half an hour through the woods, his mother stopped and breathed almost in surprise, “There it is.”
Matthew looked up and spent a few moments scanning the horizon before he was able to pick out the crumbling house from the shadowed greenery around it. His mother had started again without him. He hurried to catch up with her, still staring at the house with solemn eyes. How had his mother known about this place? Who would live in a place like this? He sorely regretted that he hadn’t thought to bring his hunting knife or something with them. What if this wasn’t where his mother thought it was? What if there were thieves or raiders in there? What would they do?
He looked helplessly at his mother. He knew that stride. There was no stopping her. He would be a fool to even try.
Sensing his gaze, she stopped and looked down at him, drawing him to a stop as well. He was surprised to see there was a little fear in her eyes, too. She let him look at her like that for several long moments and then said softly, calmly, “Trust me, Matthew.”
With hardly a moment’s hesitation, he took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay.”
She took his hand and led him to the decrepit cabin, dark and rotting. As they got closer, he noticed a thin wisp of smoke curling up from the ruins of a half-collapsed chimney. So someone was there. He wasn’t sure if that should make him feel better or worse. His mother gave his hand an encouraging little squeeze as their feet found an overgrown cobblestone walkway. They approached the door slowly. It was hanging by one hinge, moss climbing its length along cracks. She looked down at her son and commanded quietly, “Knock, Matthew.”
He watched her for another moment, unhappy with this assignment, but finally reached up and rapped the door with his knuckles. Nobody answered and they stood unmoving on the front step for a long while.
They both jumped at the sudden voice, then glanced at one another. After a quick recovery, his mother leaned closer to the door and replied, “My lady, you probably do not remember me, but-”
“Oh, I remember you, Amelia Jones, though with a different name and when you were the age of the boy at your side.”
Neither Matthew nor his mother knew how to respond. Matthew glanced at the window to see if someone was watching them, but there was nobody. How could the woman have known? Finally, his mother said, “I had heard you were sick and I came to see if I could help. I brought you some food.”
“Amelia dear, you heard nothing and I am sick with nothing but old age. You came here not to help, but to seek. You brought your child, not food.”
Rather than look afraid, Matthew was surprised to see his mother smile, that competitive grin she got sometimes. Before she could say anything else, the old woman inside bid them, “Come in, come in. Let’s see the food and the boy.”
His mother pushed the door open and gently nudged him inside. It was dark inside and it took a few moments for their eyes to adjust. Amelia was the first to recover. Matthew sensed, with a degree of panic, his mother moving away from him into the deeper darkness of the house. There was pity in her voice as he heard her exclaim, “Oh, my dear woman…”
Her pity was greeted with mirth. “Yes, we have both changed a great deal since our last meeting, child.”
“Matthew, go gather some firewood.” Sensing his hesitation, she added, “Do not worry about your clothing.”
That wasn’t what he was worried about. But he was an obedient child and he went back out of the house, leaving his mother inside with the stranger. By now, he was certain they were visiting the home of a witch, a dying one from the sound of it. He knew his mother’s tones well. He could hear them talking softly inside, though he couldn’t make out the words. He was afraid for his mother. From their conversation, they knew each other from when his mother was a young girl, but with her previous accusations of witchcraft, he wasn’t sure if she could afford to be caught tending to one, let alone knowing her since childhood. He started wandering around what had once been a yard, gathering up sticks and kindling. There was no wood stack that he could see, nor could he find an axe. He did his best and returned with an armload.
It was still dark inside when he returned, but his mother had worked the fire up and it took him little time to adjust. A sort of futon was pulled up close to the fire and a thin woman was lying on it, wrapped in several molding blankets. She was tiny and frail, her hair a snow white tangle surrounding her face. She didn’t look very frightening, Matthew decided uncertainly.
His mother was asking, “Your children don’t visit you anymore?”
The old woman laughed. “Not for over a decade, child, goodness no. My children are probably as old as your grandparents, girl. I don’t think they could get out here even if they wanted to.”
“Nobody wants a witch for a grandmother. You’d have to wonder if the cookies were all poisoned, am I right?”
Matthew stiffened. So she was a witch.
Sensing his attention and discomfort, she looked over at him, an amused smile wrinkling her face further. “Ah, little Matthew…”
He nodded his head respectfully. “My lady.”
She laughed. “What charming little manners! Amelia, I am reminded of you.”
His mother smiled. “Thank you.” She turned to her son. “Matthew, set the wood over here in the box. Thank you.”
The woman’s eyes followed him. Finally, she looked back to his mother. “Now, my little dove, what have you brought me? Say mushrooms or acorns, and I kill you on the spot.”
All of Amelia’s fear and hesitance was gone. She had been accepted as she had hoped. She reached down into the basket, laying out the small bounty on the low table beside the woman’s bed. The witch smiled in satisfaction. “Yes, perfect. You are an angel, my dear. Hmmmm, let’s see…” She started by pointing to the bread, then turned to Matthew. “Boy, what is the bread of life?”
Caught completely off guard, he glanced to his mother in surprise. She nodded encouragingly. He looked back to the woman. “The bread of life?”
“Yes. What is our sustenance, what keeps us alive?”
He glanced at his mother again, then replied hesitantly, “Food?”
“No!” The woman leaned back away from the food in fierce disappointment. “No, no, no. Think, child. You can have all the food in the world and still shrivel up and die without this. What is the bread of life?”
He glanced down at the small loaf. “The bread of life is… happiness?”
She regarded him with renewed hope. “Happiness? Very close, child. It is love. Do you know why?”
He shook his head.
“Because without love, we cannot be happy. We must have something to love, whether it is your wife or your sweetheart or your mother or your puppy or your god. Love is what keeps us alive. Without it, we are dead whether we breathe or not.” He nodded. He understood. She pointed to the fruit preserves laid out beside it. “In the spring of life, we find plenty. But instead of stuffing ourselves on crab-apples, what do we do with it?”
He glanced at the jam, more certain this time. “We preserve some of it for the winter.”
She clapped her hands. “Exactly, child. We take some of our excess and save it for times of want. What a beautiful life you’ve had so far, my dear boy. What a beautiful life. A family that loves you. A prosperous home. A time of peace. Cherish that in your memories forever. When life is in seasons of winter, take that out and remember it.” He nodded again and she pointed to the baked summer squash. “Now this: what do you make of this?”
He thought hard, finally admitting, “I don’t know.”
“Good. Neither do I.” She smiled over at him. He found himself returning the grin. “But these,” she said, turning again to the table and taking the eggs in her hands. “These have meaning. What do you make of these, my youngling?”
“Three eggs,” he whispered, concentrating. He glanced again to his mother, trying to divine what she might say. He thought about the eggs and the chickens. He looked back at the witch. “Eggs are new life.”
She was stunned and delighted. She said softly, “Yes. Eggs are new life.” She looked at his mother, still speaking in soft awe. “Amelia, your boy is a marvel.” She sat up a little further in her bed, a little excited. “Girl, go down into my cellar. There is a small, long chest just by the steps. Bring it to me. Quickly, now.” Amelia hurried to do as she bid. When she was gone, the woman asked Matthew, “Do you know what I am?”
“You are a witch.”
“Does that frighten you?”
“Not as much as I thought it would, now that I’ve seen you.”
“I want you to understand that magic changes things. Once the magic has taken hold, there is no turning back. Magic changes many things, but it cannot change the past. You can leave this house now and never come back, just living your life as you would on your own, or you can let the magic in. The outcomes are sometimes unexpected. Sometimes wonderful things happen. Sometimes terrible thing happen. That is the way it is when we meddle. I cannot promise you anything but change. Do you, Matthew Jones, want to change things?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do. This is exactly what you mother had in mind when she brought you here. She is not content to have her children living in the same village for generations that has housed generations before. Your mother is an aspiring woman for your sake. She risks her life by conspiring with a witch. You already know this yourself, clever child. Will you leave now and stay nameless and powerless in a little village, or will you take her gift?”
Matthew felt his mother coming up behind him. He was frightened. He didn’t want things to change. But his mother… He would do it for her. He nodded. “Show me your magic, my lady.”
The witch nodded to Amelia. Matthew watched as his mother set the chest on the table beside the food. The old woman opened the latch and lifted the lid, watching him the whole time. She lifted out of the chest a beautiful burgundy book, thick and leafed with shining gold. Next, she revealed a dazzling crown, reddish-gold and studded with more gems than Matthew knew existed in the whole world. The final item she removed was a long broadsword, the most beautiful and powerful weapon he had ever seen. “Three eggs, Matthew: three new lives. You must choose one.”
He considered for a moment and then looked over at the witch, his face bright with a charming smile. “Can I not have all three?”
Her eyes sparkled with surprise and mirth. “Oh, you greedy boy. You are certainly Amelia’s son.”
He took that to mean ‘no’. He turned back to his options and took a deep breath. After a moment, he knew which one he wanted.
Alone again, the old witch laughed pityingly, thinking about the boy’s choice. “Poor greedy boy, asking for all three. You shouldn’t tempt the magic like that.” She looked around her run-down little home. A cheery little fire lit the parlor and warmed her cold hands, coupled with a generous stack of wood in a box to the side. The molding curtains had been taken down to let the sunlight in and the windows and door were open, enticing a fresh, green-smelling breeze through the house. The room had been tidied as much as possible, the junk and refuse she couldn’t take out herself cleared away by the grateful mother and son. Already, she felt like she could live out the rest of the summer at least. Her little meal was still spread out on her low table beside the closed chest. She looked at the three eggs, choosing one and biting into it. “Three new lives. And three disasters to start their divergence.”