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Fantasy

The golden spoon of Ms. Hampshire was well known, in these parts, as a trinket of inestimable family value. It had been many decades since it had seen any practical application, but it was said that Baron Vindelin Hampshire, he of incredible antiquity and near-mythological achievement, had once proffered the utensil to the then King of England himself.

She kept the spoon under lock and key, in a far-removed basement chamber of the house, and her esteem could survive this thanks to the efforts of a great-grandmother who had been on good terms with a casting smith. The colored tin replica on display in the sitting room was of incredible beauty, yes, but its glass jewels held no real value, though they caused the tittering admiration and jealousy of many a visitor.

Today was no exception. True, the man in the tall hat had been unusually considerate, and his interest in the mushroom garden and picture boxes had been especially appreciated, but she saw the affected surprise in his expression as they entered the sitting room, endured the loud "oh, ho!"s and "What is this, then?"s, and waited for the point of it all. Sometimes they would offer a price - the more timid ones settled for flattery and then meek silence and small talk, but when city-men came calling, Ms. Hampshire knew only one motive could be compelling them.

So she waited patiently all during the colorful oration (though it was less pompous than some she had known), lighting a small cigarette to while away that time, and when his speech began at last to abate she cut him off with a plume of purple smoke. He coughed, taken off guard, his spittle encouraging yellow sparks in the lingering cloud. He looked at it with passing wonder.

"'Tis not for sale," she announced, not giving him time to recover nor think properly.

"What?"

"The spoon," she elaborated, and tapped some ash from the tip of the cigarette, knowing without looking that her visitor was staring at the way the mess was absorbed by her Persian carpet. "t'won't be bought by your city money, so you may be going now. I ain't sorry to have spent your time, for your folk do love to talk, but I am sorry for the effort of your horse, for the road from here to St. Louis is long and rocky, and it is a good creature undeserving of such exertions."

"Actually, I came here on a wagon."

The woman snorted in contempt. "Very good for you, innit? Consider me impressed, and please, see yourself out."

"They say concoction of barley and bone-weed taken from Old Lanka's spoon will regrow the arm of a man."

"Your stories are more suited for Continental pagans, than my quiet home." Sighing quietly to herself, realizing that the man was a stubborn one, she rose to make herself a cup of tea. "Your storytellers also say a man may drink a cup of Oregon mud, and live for centuries, and yet if that were true the Indians would have destroyed us long ago."

"So it is not true?" Despair. Good.

"None of it, I tell you. It is heirloom of my family, and nothing more. Very beautiful, no? But beautiful, and nothing more."

"Nothing more..." he echoed, but then, "I cannot believe it," he decided, and his voice was firmer. "You have a garden of mushrooms that glow in the night (I saw them last week, didn't I, passing by on the road to Kansas?), chickens with red eyes and purple crests, pictures that move in their frames and wave to a watching man, and the people in the town say you moved here from faraway lands in Europe, where the men called you Baba Yaga and hid their children from you. There must be some magic here, which you are hiding from me!"

"Are you a stupid man, or simply mad?" She stirred the brown, steaming tea with a quite ordinary silver spoon, and gulped it down with the sometimes alarming resilience of the very old. "Believing still in magic and fairies! Just imagine. We are in Missouri, little man, where the grass grows to a cow's flank and makes him forget the mountains. Where honest folk grow corn in the country and sail great boats of steam in the cities, and you talk of swamp witches and child-snatchers? I am no sorceress, no genie for your wishes. I ask you leave me alone, and be on with your travels. Would you heed the wishes of a poor old woman?"

"I will not." Oh, such defiance! His hat wobbled in tune with his chin, and now he was rising, but in passion, and his voice was soaked with it like a wet dog. "I do not mean to rob you, my good woman, but I require that spoon for my wife, for she has taken dreadful ill. I would use it, and return it; I mean no mischief at all! And if it has no power, she will die, but die all the same, for all the greatest doctors of my city are helpless to save her, though I have spent all my fortune and my happiness to that avail. You are the last hope of a desperate man - will you not save him from grief? If my hope be false, let me find it so."

So concluded, mild perspiration dripping down his face, the man moved to sit again, but found the chair gone. The wide face looked sickly, though out of exertion or fear, was impossible to determine.

"Please," he sighed. "I want only to save her... she is just outside. I'd return it at once."

And of course, here, the voices! Doubts, yes, and treacherous whispers. Here came an honest man, here came another robber; husband, now charlatan, now demon to be banished at once; pity him, destroy him, flee before him! The fire within the old woman's irises was the glint of a cornered tiger, and within it the man read a furious and terrifying calculation.

A witch might have smiled. A grim expression, all sharp, yellowed teeth and manically wobbling nose. But Ms. Hampshire came from a family that didn't abide such foolish pursuits as simple witchcraft, and so her final response was more akin to a grimace, and held no personal pleasure. But the decision being made, she rose, and headed to the ornate frame above the fireplace, and opened the thick glass display with a small, bronze key. She heard an intake of breath from behind her as the lock clicked and drew back, and a long sigh as she drew the spoon into her palm, and deposited it in the man's unbelieving hands.

"Very well, then. Very well. You are to return with it immediately, yes?"

"But of course! Oh, beautiful woman, how I feel I've wronged you! Many blessings could I heap upon you, and none would be nearly worthy enough for my thanks!"

"Yes, yes. Now off with you, and may our next encounter be our last!"

Again. No witch she, and as Ms. Hampshire saw off the irritation she still felt a twinge of... of...

Well, a twinge. She snuffled, and scratched at her mottled old arms and chest, but the feeling did not subside, and eventually she made up her mind to distract her hands with baking, 'til the man returned with the replica (or, as it may be, 'til she heard the sound of hooves clattering quickly down the little road and away!).

Thoughts came more easily now, with thick batter under her steely palms, going through motions that were both familiar and comfortable. Under such conditions, she could think. Analyze.

I'm afraid he'll make of with the thing. That must be it. But it was a fake, wasn't it? How very silly a heart! How weak a spirit and gullible a mind!

A passion filled her, and perhaps that is why she missed it. Now she is shaping the dough into a pan, working with spoon and hand, and if not happy or satisfied she is at least occupied enough to distract herself away from the horrible chill in her chest.

It is stirring, now, hearing with inward ears that the swarthy external organs have somehow missed, or intentionally ignore. For outside the open window, past the birdsong and shifting leaves of the garden, a man is crying softly, a woman sighs and is still, and a sound comes tinkling inward, of tin striking warm, unflinching ground.

September 16, 2019 13:29

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