Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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-   -   -   -   P   r   e   v   i   e   w   -   -   -   -

Remains of the Witch
    by Tony Pi

Remains of the Witch
Artwork by Anna Repp

(A letter, sealed with golden wax, stamped with a winged monkey in flight, discovered in the Gale girl's farmhouse.)

Dear Miekkek, my wing-sister,

The witch-water showed me that you still seek me. For that, I love you all the more, but you'll not find me in the shadows or hollows of Oz. I haven't the courage to face you as I am, as I have become.

Forgive me.

Yet I owe you the truth. You alone, among all our monkey brethren, didn't shun me after the witch took me as her protégée. Unlike the others, you never fled from my coming, turned wing to my face, or called me Witch's Paw. Instead you whispered my name to remind me who I once was: Remue, she who laughed, she who belonged.

That fledgling would have you know her fate.

After the Gale girl slew West, I chose to see what remained of the witch. When I first heard the manner of her death, I didn't believe it. With all her power, how could West let a simple pail of water slay her? I had to see for myself.

For all her vaunted evil, she had shown me glimpses of kindness. During our lessons she'd sometimes let slip a word of praise amid her huff and sneer, or give me leave to scry to my heart's content in her far-seeing crystal. So while you all rejoiced in her death and celebrated your freedom, I flew to the tower where she had died, my heart thundering as loud as the bells and songs roaring from your feast.

There, I found the stink of burnt straw. A bucket, upended. West's hourglass broken, its blood salts spilt across the stony tiles. The final proof was her hat and robes, a mess of black, soaking in a pool of absinthe-green.

Months of her posture lessons fled me and I hunched over the puddle, shaking. Her Selfish and Tyrannical Wickedness, slain by a wisp of a girl?

But then I recalled what West had said to her sister the final time they'd held coven.

We wing-sisters had drawn lots in the kitchen that night, remember? You'd chosen the shortest straw, but I saw the terror in you and lied, said it was mine. I took the silver platter, heaped with grilled scorpions and honey-drowned mice, to the mistress's den, and prayed they wouldn't find fault with their snacks.

I couldn't help but overhear the witches' banter. "North sent me an invitation to afternoon tea, the bitch," West was saying to East. "She wishes to 'revisit the merits of good over evil.'"

"Again? You didn't accept, did you?" East asked.

"Of course not. She'll try to spill tea in my lap, then make tearful apologies while she sops me up with a buttermilk scone," West replied, glancing at me. "Clotted cream or not, I'd sooner teach etiquette to this flying monkey and send her in my place, than to sit in North's trap."

East laughed and plucked a mouse by the tail off my platter. "What I'd give to see that, sister! But look at the wretch." She studied me with crimson eyes. "Weak. Wild. Low."

West scoffed at that. "I'd make her cheeky but proper, droll but prim. North would have to concede that even a winged monkey could play the part of a lady. At tea, my creation will mock North with highborn words, while the fairy must bite her tongue and entertain her."

"A cruel and delicious jest, and I applaud you for thinking of it. But glass tinted green does not an emerald make." East swallowed her snack whole.

"You underestimate me, sister. Shall we make a wager of it? Your ruby secrets for mine?"

East seemed amused. "Agreed, but no sorcery," she warned.

West smiled. "I won't need magic. Give me twelve months and I'll have 'milady' here sipping tea and nibbling shortbread. Isn't that so, my sweet?"

I could only bow.

But their bet was never settled, for they never met again: the Gale girl crushed East under her house, and then melted West. A green pool was all that was left of our mistress.

I spoke no ill of the dead, standing there above her remains, but whispered a few heartfelt words of thanks to West for teaching me. Her motives might have been self-serving, but her confidence in me inspired me to better myself.

I reached for her hat to dry it by a fire, knowing she'd hate to leave it wet. The wetness should have been as cold as the stones, but I felt a warmth to it that surprised me. Curious, I touched the pool with my fingertips, rippling its surface. When the jade water stilled, I saw that my reflection wasn't my own, but that of the witch.

I started back a step, thinking it was only a trick of the torchlight, but when I looked again it was the same. The watery image of West within the pool aped my motions, though when I felt my face, its shape was still my own.

Did the water that killed her now somehow hold her power?

Truth be told, that power tempted me. West never taught me sorcery, but I'd seen her make flowers bloom with poison, travel where she pleased by way of fire and brimstone, fly on a broom, and more. We feared and obeyed her for what she could do with her magic.

A madness seized me: I couldn't let that power dry up or seep between the cracks.

I put the bucket upright and wrung the witch-water from her clothes into it. The fumes made me lightheaded, but I soaked up the rest of the puddle with her robe until I couldn't squeeze out another drop.

But it would add insult to injury to leave her in a pail. A globe from the broken hourglass seemed intact, so I emptied the sand from it and poured the liquid carefully into the bulb. I took the hat as well, and sought the safety of West's hidden library where she'd given me many lessons. Now feverish from the fumes, I managed to close the secret door and set the globe of witch-water down before I fainted.

I dreamt of many things in my fever. I dreamt I was Remue before the wager, flying free in the skies with our volary. You and I rested in the hot springs in the mountains of Winkie Country, splashing one another in play as the steaming waters soothed us. But you melted into shadows when West stepped out of the smoke to ask my name.

"Rrremue," I answered, trilling its beginning as she'd taught me. Rrremue, her Witch's Paw.

"You've done well in your lessons so far, but you've much to learn as yet, my sweet," she said. She dressed me in lace and set a grimoire on my head. "Pull that tail back under your dress. Keep that poise. Good."

She bade me to walk with grace while I recited a tongue-twisting ode to Oz. I stepped to the rhythm of her broomstick tapping on stone, rolling highborn words off the tip of my tongue.

"Enunciate," she cackled. "Enunciate!"

But the skies darkened with grey wings, and the monkeys of our volary surrounded me, screeching their amusement and hurling insults. Their stares cut deep. I called for you, cried for you, but you didn't come. I turned too fast and the book fell off my head, and I startled awake, free from my fever dream at last.

My paws had changed while I was asleep. Fur had fallen away from them. My fingers were human-long with black nails, green where they ought be blue.

I trembled. I'd soaked my paws in the witch-water and now they'd turned into West's hands.

Then I remembered that I'd also touched my face with those wet paws.

I tore through the library to find a mirror, but all I could find was a silver platter left behind weeks ago. I licked the old honey off the metal and held it up to see my reflection.

Streaks of green marred my cheeks.

What had I done? I should've left the pool untouched, but I let misguided compassion and the temptation of power rule me. If only I had joined you at the feast. If only I hadn't pitied the witch.

But should-haves and if-onlys couldn't change anything. Nor could they feed my growing hunger. I needed to steal food from the kitchens.

Though I hadn't the far-seeing crystal, if I warmed the globe of witch-water with my hands, I could scry. It showed me the Winkies and the Winged Monkeys squabbling over the spoils of the castle, but also which corridors were safe. It let me eat for several days, until a wing-sister saw me in the pantry, snatching an apple with a green hand.

I fled at once back to the library, but volary soldiers and Winkie guardsmen broke through the secret door, putting West's books to the torch. I escaped the flames through a second passage, taking West's hat and her remains with me. But somehow our wing-brother Chivlev found the hidden exit from the other side.

He levelled a halberd against me and bared his teeth when he saw my hands. "Look at you, Witch's Paw. Even now you cling to her hat. Do you keep to her wicked ways, too?"

"I didn't mean to, Chivlev. Please, let me go," I begged. "I just want to be left alone."

He answered me with a snarl and swung his halberd. I dropped the hat and caught the shaft of his weapon and snapped it. Some of the witch-water sloshed out of the glass and splashed my leg. I screamed as the power twisted my flesh once more.

Chivlev tossed his broken weapon aside. "Here! She's here!" he screeched.

I just wanted him to stop shouting. I never meant to crush his throat.

When I realized my terrible strength, I allowed his body to fall.

Would he die? It didn't matter. Our King would never pardon me for what I did. Chiv's cries had already summoned more brothers, who cried for my surrender. I couldn't go back the way I came, either; only fire and choking smoke awaited me there.

There was no escape . . . except by the power of the witch.

I lifted the glass and downed a mouthful, telling myself it was only water -- though I hardly believed my own lie.

The liquid tasted vile, shrinking my fangs and burning my throat. But West's magic bubbled inside me, conjured the scarlet smoke, and ripped a destination from my mind, transporting me there in an instant.

I stumbled out of the smoke coughing, so weak that I nearly slipped on the rocks and into a pool. The spell had taken me to our mountain springs, and for the time being I was safe.

But the magic I drank was making my fur fall out in clumps, and growing me tall and lanky. I longed to leap into the heated waters to soothe my bones, but I dared not. Even the touch of wet stone burned me.

I wanted to stay, but knew I couldn't. The volary would come. So I allowed myself one more sunset to watch the skies deepen violet, and one last sunrise to remember the mists honeycombed by morning light. Then I flew east while I still had wings, seeking a place where I could hide from the world.

Strangely, I found my sanctuary at the end of the yellow brick road: the Gale girl's farmhouse in Munchkinland. The Munchkins feared the place as much as they revered it, staying far from the dwelling that crushed East. They whispered that the Gale sorceress still guarded her home, that the ghost of East haunted where she died. Some nights they even claimed to hear a witch's weeping.

The house of dust had almost all that I needed, even human clothes that fit me better than the dress I wore. My growth spurts had torn its sleeves, but I was loathe to throw it away. That dress had meant something to West. She'd given me the frilly white dress as a reward for learning to read so well. I had thanked her, but I'd also wondered where it came from.

"My mother sewed it for me on my ninth birthday. I thought I might give it to a daughter or niece one day, but . . ." She sighed and ruffled the fur on my head. "Stand up straight, Remue. I need to measure you so I can alter it to fit your wings. You must look perfect when you meet Her Calculating and Maddening Goodness, hmm?"

"I'll do you proud," I had said. "But what if I forget my manners? Or have no idea what to say?"

"Use your wits, then. Speak your heart with a smile and veil your insults with hoighty-toighty words. Like I taught you."

"Couldn't you teach me magic? Just enough to protect myself against her?"

She shook her head. "No one taught me, my sweet. Real magic must be given or stolen, or come from what's true to you."

But she must have seen the disappointment in my face and added, "There is a kind of magic I can teach you. Let's add sleight-of-hand to our lessons, shall we?"

West had taken such painstaking care in fitting the dress for my wings those many months ago; I couldn't leave it tattered. I searched the Gale girl's house until I found a needle and thread, then set to mending it.

The witch-water still reflected her face over mine. The power called to me to drink it, to complete my transformation. What else do you have to live for? it whispered.

Its reflections showed me winged monkeys picking fruit together or chasing crows in play, taunting me with the camaraderie I craved but could never again have. There was no place for an outcast like me in the volary. I was already half a monster, doomed to shame and solitude. Why not drink all her power and rule the volary instead?

My mouth went dry just thinking about that magic.

But if I did, I might never be me again.

I had to break this enchantment.

But how?

West had made me for a task, one that was left undone.

I would invite North to tea.

Surely she'd know how to break this spell. But would she help me?

North will tell you that goodness hides in even the darkest of hearts, but a serpent lurks in hers, I remembered West saying. Never trust her words.

If West was right, I would need to trick North into revealing the truth.

I couldn't entertain her in this house, though. Not in the disgraceful state the Gale girl left it in. I needed to turn this drabness into elegance.

Over the next few days, the smallfolk woke to find odd things missing: the League's lace teacloth; the Guild's crystal muffineer; the Mayor's silver tea-service. Apricot shortcakes, marrow and ginger jam, jars of Gillikin Leaf and Quadling Dust tea, and more.

I penned an invitation to North, called a crow to deliver it, and waited.

She came at the appointed time on the afternoon of a storm, crowned, bejewelled; aglow. She stood on the porch with an immaculate lace umbrella, more sieve than shield against the rain. Yet she stayed impossibly dry.

"You must be Remue," North said, trilling my name. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, my dear."

For all her pleasantries, I saw pity in her eyes.

I curtsied. "Charmed, I'm sure, Your Wholesome Goodness. Welcome to my humble abode. Please, do come in."

"How kind of you." With a twirl, North turned the umbrella back into a star-tipped wand, and entered. "You must have scrubbed every surface, Remue. Tastefully embellished, I must say."

"You're too kind. You must be weary from flying all that way. Please, sit, and I'll pour you a cup of tea. Which do you prefer?"

"Gillikin Leaf, please. Thank you." North fawned over the tiered curate stand, marvelling at the delicate scones, tea sandwiches and sweets. "Are those raspberry-filled chocolate tulips?"

I poured a cup for her. "West said you could never resist them. Try one."

"Oh, you're too kind."

She reached for one, and in that moment of distraction I tipped a thimbleful of West's green witch-water into her tea with a little legerdemain. Then I poured a cup for myself. "You must try the pumpkin scone," I insisted. "It tastes of baked autumn."

North took one, broke a piece from it and slathered butter on it. But when she tried it, she frowned. "That, and a hint of theft. My dear Remue, wouldn't you feel greater satisfaction baking them yourself?"

"West never covered baking in our lessons," I explained. "But what harm done? They'd fight to serve you their best, had they thought to invite you to tea."

"That's not the point. They made the food for their own enjoyment, and you took it from them," she said.

"And yet you still eat," I observed.

"'Twould be ill-mannered to let good food go to waste." She lifted her teacup to appreciate its aroma. "There's an odd touch of fruit to the nose."

"It's my own blend," I lied. "Gillikin and apricot. I hope it's to your liking."

She blew on the tea to cool it. "Tell me the truth, Remue. You didn't invite me to tea for the pleasure of my company. What is it you wish of me?"

A direct question. I offered an equally direct answer.

"Before she died, West had hoped to send me to treat with you over afternoon tea. She went to great lengths to make me what I am: lessons in etiquette, diction, and poise. She even taught me to read and write highborn words, so that I might debate with you the merits of evil over good. I thought it a pity to squander that."

She touched the porcelain to her lips and almost drank, but paused. "The pupil speaks with her tutor's voice, in more ways than one. What happened to you, Remue?"

My tail -- or rather the stub it had become -- twitched. "I'm turning into her, by way of a monster." I turned and showed her the twisted remnants of my once glorious wings.

"You are not she, and need never be," North said. "Everyone's capable of great good. Look deep into your heart and you will know."

I wished she would just be silent and drink the tea.

She raised an eyebrow and set her teacup down as though she could hear my thoughts. "You poisoned my tea," she said.

I feigned indignation, but the muscles of my face no longer obeyed me as they once did. Instead, my face gnarled and my upper lip quivered. "I've no wish to kill a guest with my first tea party. Why, who would come to my next one?"

"My dear, the lie is plain on your face." North pushed the tea away. "Why?"

There was no point in furthering the charade. "I want you to drink the witch, and piss green like me. I want to savour your horror as you change, and watch how you break the curse so that I can do the same. Now tell me how virtuous I am."

North finished the last morsel on her plate. "All you had to do was ask."

"Is there truly a way?"

"Ah, the rain has stopped. I'm afraid I must fly. Thank you for the lovely tea." North rose.

I stood, rattling the china on the table. "You want me to beg?"

North waved her wand, sprinkling glittery dust around her. She floated into the air. "We simply must do this again, Remue. Perhaps next time, you'll accept my invitation instead."

"P-please."

She gave me a practiced smile. "Since you asked so politely . . . very well. Seek the Truth Pond in Winkie Country. It is said that bathing in its waters will break any enchantment, even this curse upon you. Until we meet again, Remue."

With that, she drifted out the window like a will-o'-the-wisp.

Water. Did it have to be water?

More to the point: Dare I believe that this Truth Pond would wash away this curse?

It seemed too easy. West had warned me that North couldn't be trusted. "See how she manipulated that Gale girl!" she had said. "She knew how to send the lass home, but chose to strand her in Oz until she did her bidding."

For all I knew, North dropped the house on East herself. What if she wanted to trick me into melting myself?

I took up the cup of green tea and looked into it. Should I stay a monster? Or down the rest of the witch-water and fully embrace the dark power? I asked these questions of the witch in the teacup, but she answered only with silence.

No measure of honey could make this witch-water sweet.

Under this skin is still the wing-sister you remember, who I hope to be again. West had said that real magic comes from staying true to yourself. If I am to trust water to wash away this emerald curse, it wouldn't be this convenient Truth Pond of North's.

It has to be the springs in the mountains where I once lived free. Those waters are vital to who I am, and true to who I once was.

And so I leave you this letter, Miekkek, written with the final quill from my wings and inked with the last of the witch-water. I trust you to burn these pages after you've read them.

Your Remue waits for you in the mountains, if the Fates would leave her be.

If not . . . then shun the green waters.

With all my love,

Remue

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