Steam rose from the vats boiling by the black shore. The stench was of dead fish and strange innards, of silk and spider’s venom and a burned spoon or two. The dark sand next to the cauldrons was scattered with dazed fish’s eyes and reeking green strings of fish organs, and silver and orange and blue scales were mixed in with the sand and washed away in the oily tide.
The jade mountains that reached high above the ocean and the volcanic sand were still and silent. Not a creature moved on the slopes, not even a cat. The impassive sky was muffled by the iron-grey clouds, and where the grey was cracked, a slice of weary crying blue shone through: Somewhere above the sea, it was raining.
In her house of stone, Ione was sick.
She lay, trembling with fever and cold, on her bed, wrapped in a thin cloak and a few of her cats. Her eyes were red and her hands blue, though it was only a few degrees below freezing on the island. The fire in her hearth was long dead, the coals mute and empty, the walls of the chimney black with long-ago soot. Through the window she could see the ocean, and through the window the wind from the ocean came and swirled a stray fish-scale into her home.
The cats were tucked around her, amiably lying in obscure places on her body to keep her warm. Queen Cymbeline was buried around her neck, writhing occasionally to adjust some part of her leg or tail.
Ione stared at her ceiling, willing herself to sleep. Her eyes refused to close, her body to stop trembling.
Hours passed. She slept fitfully, snatching a few minutes at a time as her body tried valiantly to fight off whatever island infection she’d caught. Her teeth clacked. In her sleep she dreamed of a warm fish, of its blood, of hanging a necklace of its bones round her neck. Even in her dream she was disgusted.
Ione woke with a start. Her feet were cold and uncovered, and she was too weary to rise and cover them with a blanket. She wanted to sleep, to keep sleeping until the island cracked and rose and retched and turned over in a great cymbal crash of an earthquake, until the sea billowed over the island and buried her.
Finally she rose. Her head thundered and Ione staggered over to her window and vomited outside. The cats twined around her ankles and she tried to smile, pitifully. She wrapped her cloak and her blanket around her shoulders and head.
She took a piece of charcoal from the fire and the enormous red leaf from beside her bed and tried to think of the recipe for the Thieves’ Potion. Ione, though not knowing her age, did think she was at least a thousand years old, and had made many a witchy mixture in her day.
“Cobwebs,” her throat said. It sounded like a mountain speaking, stony and deep and a voice unused. “Bees. Dead and boiled, too.”
She looked down at the Queen, who was sharpening her claws on the boulder that overlooked the sea. “A fish?”
The Queen looked up and licked her paw.
“No, I can’t do a fish. I can’t pull that net up.”
Her cliff, the precipice from where she tossed her nets to catch the fish for her cats, towered hundreds of feet over the slice of the ocean that cut the heart of the island. There was no way in her weakened state that Ione could haul the net up, full of fish, to the cliff’s edge, and not collapse.
“Did I say bees already? I think there’s that one hive still left over, at the tip of the mountain. I’ll need a whisker, Cymbeline.”
She looked up at the sky and her vision tunneled and twisted. She fell to the ground and the charcoal pencil clattered away from her, down the hill. “No!”
Ione lay on her back and tried hard not to weep. She felt as though she might truly die. She coughed and it sounded like a hacking frog.
“Donkey, come here,” she called. The cat as large as a collie dog purred and slid lazily over to her. She put one thin white hand on the cat’s back and heaved herself up, seeing flecks of shining lights in her peripheral vision.
She mumbled, eyes closed, “I think it’s just that, bees and cobwebs and whiskers. I have to remember to squeeze a fish’s eye into it too. That way I can drink it.”
Ione was thinking aloud. She gripped the leaf on which her list was written, and Donkey started walking up the mountain.
It was pattered like a vibrant green quilt, the mountain. Ione staggered her way up it, breathing through her nose, turning cold and hot and resting after a few steps. She was sweating profusely by the time she reached the top. When she did she sat down and laid her head on Donkey’s back, gasping.
“I wonder… what it would be like… to die?” she whispered after awhile. “I can’t… imagine… a worse way to die… than this…”
Donkey purred and nudged her.
“You’re right.” She stood shakily and walked half-bent to the small buzzing hive that hung like a pregnant belly under a boulder. With the leaf she captured three bees and killed them quickly and removed their wings and stingers.
Breathing hard, she turned slowly and rested her hand once again on the large cat’s back. Ione looked to the side only once on the way down, and there sat Queen Cymbeline, licking her paws and staring directly at Ione.
Ione smiled and put her head back down and kept staggering down the mountain.
She went down to the shore and saw a double number of vats, a double number of oceans. Her vision went crossed and her legs buckled.
In a small, empty cauldron she put the dead bees and motioned Mistress Tybalt the spotted black cat over to her. Ione looked in the cat’s yellow eyes and apologized, then, in quick succession, plucked three of the writhing cat’s whiskers and dropped them into the cauldron before Mistress Tybalt could react.
“Now cobwebs,” Ione muttered, closing her eyes and resting her narrow back against the bronze cauldron. She crawled on her hands and knees over to a large stone and used her nails to uncatch the spiderweb that was knotted underneath.
She put her hand to her head and knew her fever was raging. Quickly she dumped a gallon of seawater into the cauldron and brought a stick of fire over from under another vat and boiled the mixture.
Ione clasped a stray fish eye with her trembling fingers and squeezed as hard as she could, over the cauldron. A stick, slimy, clear fluid came out and she stirred the potion with a thin stick stripped of its bark.
“Done!” she gasped painfully. “It is done. Now I wait.”
Sighing, Ione lay on her back, head toward the ocean, warming herself next to the small fire, listening to the ocean rush up into her hair and back away again. Her potion-mixture bubbled and gurgled slowly, and she was now just waiting for it to boil over—and then she would drink it. Mistress Tybalt sulked, whisker-free, next to her on the black clayey sand.
Queen Cymbeline picked her way over the dead fish and the sparkling scales. Ione heaved herself up when a little of the medicine splashed onto her neck, and with an oyster shell she drank of it until she was full. It settled in her stomach and she lay back down, a peace slowly spreading through her body.
With a low whiff through her nose, the Queen curled up on the inside of Ione’s arm, and Ione stroked her Queen’s back until they both fell asleep.