To hear the sound of that tune was what the woman lived for. It was her life's work and her only pleasure. Lately, its sound had become fainter. The woman worried about it; she felt changes coming, but distantly, like the clang of an axe on the other side of the mountain. There were more people coming into the forest, for one thing. A village had grown into a real town at the forest's edge; it was sending out roads like the cables of a spider, and where the roads went farmsteads grew mushroomlike into actual villages, filled with strangers who scoffed at the old ways. It made her irritable, and she worked ever harder.
The local people had no idea of any of this, of course, although part of what she did touched their lives. They called it luck, and indeed the forest was a lucky place. The trapper's traps were full enough to earn them a living selling furs, yet many animals escaped them. The woodsman's axe bit true, so the tree always fell in just the right place and in falling threw its seed into the most fecund cranny of earth. The horses never slipped at their chains, so the logs skidded neatly into the river, and hardly a jam slowed them in their passage to the mill. The cows in the little farms gave without stint; the hens were prodigious layers; and the local butter, cheese, and eggs were famous in the towns that bordered the forest. All this came from what the woman did, although indirectly, as the fire from a great forge will help to hatch the eggs of the swallows nesting in the rafters high above.
Now carrying the basket with the baby in it, she returned to her cottage. It was a small high house, made of weathered wood. It had a steep thatched roof, and it rested on a foundation of dark stone, cleverly locked together without mortar. One corner was supported by a living oak tree; and the door and doorframe bore carved figuresserpentine forms of women, men, and animals. These figures were not always in the same place each time you looked at them. Besides that, the woman's home appeared to be an ordinary cottage of the district.
A large, ragged gray cat with grape-green eyes was sunning himself on the warmed stone of the front step, and as she approached he looked up. His whiskers twitched when he saw the basket she carried.
"I hope that's something to eat," said the cat.
"It most certainly is not," said the woman. "It's a baby. See?" She placed the basket on the ground and opened the cover. The cat peered in at the baby, now asleep.
"What fun!" said the cat, grinning. "Are you going to chase it and tear it to pieces?"
"What an idea!" the woman exclaimed. "I'll do no such thing." She paused and regarded the cat closely. "And neither will you. I mean it, Falance. If I find one scratch on this child" she leaned over and put her face close to the cat's"I'll turn you into a dog."
The cat shuddered and began washing himself in the offhand manner of cats who have been embarrassed and don't wish to acknowledge the fact.
Between licks he said, "Well, then, what do you propose to do with the thing?"
"I shall bring it up, of course. It will live here with us."
The cat stared at her, aghast. "What!" he cried. "Impossible! Whatever has possessed you?" At this, he stopped, frozen. Then he placed his forepaws against the woman's knees and stared deeply into her eyes.
"You're not, are you?" asked the cat hesitantly. "Possessed?"
"Oh, of course not, you nincompoop," she snapped. "I'm perfectly fine." She brushed the cat aside, picked up the basket, and stalked into the cottage. The ground floor was mainly one large room, with a hearth and latticed windows on the three other sides. Chairs and a round table stood in the center of the room, with cupboards for dishes and things against the walls and a bookcase that went up to the low ceiling. The tabletop was littered with twisted bits of paper holding herbs and seeds; dried bunches of plants; colored glass vials, some containing liquids, others with shriveled brownish objects in them; a tilting stack of leather-bound books; and a quill pen stuck in an ink bottle. The woman cleared a space with a sweep of her arm and set the basket down on the table.
From The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber, Copyright © 2005 by Michael Gruber. All Rights Reserved. HarperCollins Publishers.
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