The path in front of her house was a mess from the last storm. Leaves from her neighbor's sycamore had scattered across her walkway and her garden, plastering the onions with wet, soggy leaves, and smothering the newly-sprouting turnips.
"Damn these buggery leaves to Hell," she said loudly, and began to sweep, gently dusting the wide, heavy leaves from her vegetable garden, and then more fiercely, the ones from the path. As she swept, the wind rose from the north and blew the leaves back onto the garden and the pathway. "Oh, you filthy demons, why must I put up with you?"
Next door, the maid squeaked and ran to her mistress. "Demons! Dame Flagg speaks to demons!"
Mistress Glane pulled the curtain of her front window aside and saw old Dame Flagg plying her wide corn broom, whacking at the sycamore leaves that flew onto her pathway. "It doesn't surprise me, though I wished I were wrong. Every time she brings that broom out of her heathen house, the wind rises!"
Glane was quite right, for Maraget Flagg was tormented by some unknown source, so that every single time she sought to sweep the dust out of her house or the dirt from her walkway, the wind would rise from the north and blow everything back onto her efforts. Did she stop and go in for a cup of tea, the wind would die. Did she sneak out to pull a few weeds from between the spinaches, the wind was still. But all she had to do was pick up her broom and begin to sweep, and the wind would rise, flinging dust and winged seeds into everyone's house.
"Do you think she's a witch, and uses the wind to fly away on her broom, like the grannies' stories tell?" the maid whispered.
"Never seen her fly, though that wind would about make anyone blow away. Wait, what is she doing with the leaves from my tree?"
"She's collecting them, Mistress Glane! Picking them up and carrying them away! Look at her mouth, she's saying something."
"Oh Heaven help us, she's cursing my tree, isn't she? Why else would she want to pluck the leaves one by one into her hands? She must be a witch!" The woman wrung her hands in her apron. "But why? What might I have done to deserve a curse? My poor tree!"
"Maybe she's making it fall on your house, Ma'am! For sure if it falls on the house, it is your bedroom that will be broken!"
Glane hissed. "But what was it? That the goat ate up all her lettuces? Who knew it would roam away from my lawn? She said nothing about it, nothing at all. It must be something else."
"Oh, Ma'am, maybe it was when you invited everyone else in the village to your oldest daughter's wedding, but not old Dame Flagg or Gordon No-Wits because they were too poor to bring gifts." The maid held her fingers over her mouth in horror.
"That makes no sense. I gave her some of the leftover bread the following week."
"Or maybe when your youngest boy was pelting her with crab apples the other day, screaming that she was ugly?"
"Nonsense," said Glane sternly. "That's children's mischief, no reason for a curse over that. And she herself would have to admit that he was right, about her being ugly. If she was cursing the apple tree, I could even see her point, but not my sycamore, that my great-grandmother-in-law's grandfather planted."
Over the course of the afternoon, Glane and her maid watched the old woman leave the broom on her porch, and use a dried branch as a rake to drag all the leaves in her front garden and walkway to the edge of the road. They watched in horror as the old woman dusted something off her hands and kicked the pile of leaves and twigs into a more compact pile, muttering all the while. In the late afternoon, Dame Flagg brought an ember to the heap of autumn detritus, and set fire to it.
Maraget Flagg blew on the ember to see it light up the heap of leaves, then stood back, her hands on her hips in satisfaction. "I beat you, Wind! Cheated your accursed mischief by not picking up my broom! Now I know how to best you, you'll never blow leaves back onto my garden again! And I promise you, I'll find a way to keep you from blowing the dirt back into my house as well, you dirty fiend!" She shook her fist towards the north.
"It is my tree!" Mistress Glane gasped, turning away from the south-facing window. "Or me!"
"Mistress, what shall we do? Shall we report her to the deacon? Maybe the congregation will put her in jail and burn her at the stake for witchcraft! They could do it before her curse takes hold!"
"It's too late for that," Glane told the maid. "A fist-shake like that is like an 'Amen' to a prayer. Her curse is laid, ready to befall us! What shall I do?"
The maid, observing her mistress's distress, offered, "We can move your bedstead and dresser to the downstairs dining room! The fall of the tree cannot kill you and your husband then!"
"Yes!" Glane cried. "We can put the dining room table in the parlor! But what about the children? Their bedrooms are upstairs also. Wait, they can sleep under the table, run and get their mattresses into the parlor, too."
The maid curtseyed and scurried off to enlist the help of the outside man.
The household might look peculiar, but it was well worth it to escape the curse of the witch next door.
Maraget Flagg used her stick to disperse the last of the char from the ashes that were left of her heap of leaves. "Good stick," she told it. "You've served me well today. You should talk to that broom and find out what its problem is, calling up the wind like it does. Maybe I should put that broom under a rock and buy a new one, one that will sweep without summoning the wind."
She pondered the dark residue of the leaves on the road. "But I wonder, was it the broom that was cursed, or the farmer's wife who sold me the broom -- was she a witch and put a curse on me?" She put the stick on the porch beside the broom. "But why would that woman put a curse on me? Did someone tell her that I fed her cake to the neighbor's goat? She did give me that oatcake because she thought I was too thin, but it tasted like good works mixed with sawdust." She poured hot water from the kettle into her teacup, and chuckled. "Goat liked it, though. Liked it so much she keeps coming back looking for more and finding my garden. I thought that was punishment enough for being ungrateful, but evidently it weren't."
At the height of summer, when the hay had grown up past his knees and all the calves were getting large and sassy, and the sun came up early and stayed up late, Farmer Kemper's mother passed away. She had lasted well into her sixties, and worked hard every day of her life. A productive woman, even after her husband passed away, she cooked for the whole farmstead -- three square meals a day and bread and pies to boot. Two days after Farmer Kemper saw his mother's mortal remains into the soil, Kemper felt the weight of a new truth descend upon his household: his lovely and charitable young wife could not produce anything palatable from the kitchen at all.
Now autumn was threatening rain and frost, and Kemper's trousers only stayed on his body by virtue of a continuously tightened belt. The three children were thinner, but not in danger of starvation -- neighbors and townsfolk who had tasted his wife's cooking at community social gatherings mercifully plied the young ones with treats and pasties every chance they could.
Years before, Kemper had wondered at his good fortune, being offered the hand of not the oldest daughter of John Dassle, but the prettiest one. She was clever at embroidery and sewing and basket-making, and had an agreeable personality and sweet singing voice. When she became Eva Kemper, he could not have been happier. Now he pondered again his fortune. "The old man didn't like me as much as I thought he did. He was just getting his greatest liability out of his house. What woman doesn't know anything about cooking? Something must have happened while his wife was pregnant with Eva -- some witch was offended that cursed the unborn child."
There was only one thing to do.
Maraget opened her door wider. "Yes. Hello Mister Kemper, how can I help you?"
Kemper exhaled with a sigh that threatened to turn him inside out. "Dame Flagg, I am ready to beg you for help. When your husband was still alive and running his bakery, you were known for your excellent rye bread."
"I was, wasn't I? But I can't afford to make it any more -- all I have left is flatbread for me. Don't even have enough of that to keep some chickens."
"I was wondering ... would you -- could you -- consider coming to join my farmstead as the household cook? You would have your own garden plot if you wish, and a room with a fireplace -- it's a big room, almost a house in itself -- and all the supplies you need -- "
Maraget Flagg laughed loudly. "Oh, I understand why you're asking me, Kemper. Your wife is a very generous woman, I know that from her kindness to me."
Kemper rubbed his face with his hands. "Yes, Ma'am. She has the heart of an angel."
Maraget winked. "You should taste what I can do with pork chops, Sir."
"Why is our bed in the dining room, my dear?" Ralston Glane wrinkled his brow and tried to keep his exasperation at bay.
"Dame Flagg has cursed our tree and it will fall through the roof and kill us all," Mistress Glane whispered desperately. "We'll be safe downstairs!"
We'll look like nincompoops when the parson comes for Sunday dinner, Ralston thought. His wife was a good woman, thrifty about the house, a gracious hostess. That she was occasionally taken by flights of fancy was undeniable.
There was only one thing left to do.
Two days later, four woodsmen drove up in a two-horse open wagon with saws and axes. The following week, the great tree was gone, and the Glane house was bathed in sunlight for the first time in generations.
Mistress Glane stood on her front stoop, looking at the airy expanse between her house and the street. Noting the "For Sale" sign in front of Dame Flagg's house, and the dark, blank windows, Glane knew that her problem was solved. "No tree, no curse. I knew she was a witch."
A corn broom stood on the abandoned porch.
In the sky, the wind laughed.
Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-10-23
Image(s) are public domain.