‘There,’ said Grinnan as we cleared the trees. ‘Now, you keep your counsel, Hanny-boy.’
Why, that is the mudwife’s house, I thought. Dread thudded in me. Since two days ago among the older trees when I knew we were in my father’s forest, I’d feared this.
The house looked just as it did in my memory: the crumbling, glittery yellow walls, the dreadful roof sealed with drippy white mud. My tongue rubbed the roof of my mouth just looking. It is crisp as wafer-biscuit on the outside, that mud. You bite through to a sweetish sand inside. You are frightened it will choke you, but you cannot stop eating.
The mudwife might be dead, I thought hopefully. So many are dead, after all, of the black.
But then came a convulsion in the house. A face passed the window-hole, and there she was at the door. Same squat body with a big face snarling above. Same clothing, even, after all these years, the dress trying for bluishness and the pinafore for brown through all the dirt. She looked just as strong. However much bigger I’d grown, it took all my strength to hold my bowels together.
‘Don’t come a step nearer.’ She held a red fire-banger in her hand, but it was so dusty—if I’d not known her I’d have laughed.
‘Madam, I pray you,’ said Grinnan. ‘We are clean as clean—there’s not a speck on us, not a blister. Humble travellers in need only of a pig hut or a chicken shed to shelter the night.’
‘Touch my stock and I’ll have you,’ she says to all his smoothness. ‘I’ll roast your head in a pot.’
I tugged Grinnan’s sleeve. It was all too sudden—one moment walking wondering, the next on the doorstep with the witch right there, talking heads in pots.
‘We have pretties to trade,’ said Grinnan.
‘You can put your pretties up your poink-hole where they belong.’
‘We have all the news of long travel. Are you not at all curious about the world and its woes?’
‘Why would I live here, tuffet-head?’ And she went inside and slammed her door and banged the shutter across her window.
‘She is softening,’ said Grinnan. ‘She is curious. She can’t help herself.’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said.
‘You watch me. Get us a fire going, boy. There on that bit of bare ground.’
‘She will come and throw her bunger in it. She’ll blind us, and then—’
‘Just make and shut. I tell you, this one is as good as married to me. I have her heart in my hand like a rabbit-kitten.’
I was sure he was mistaken, but I went to, because fire meant food and just the sight of the house had made me hungry. While I fed the fire its kindling, I dug up a little stone from the flattened ground and sucked the dirt off it.
Grinnan had me make a smelly soup. Salt fish, it had in it, and sea-celery and the yellow spice.
When the smell was strong, the door whumped open and there she was again. Ooh, she was so like in my dreams, with her suddenness and her ugly intentions that you can’t guess. But it was me and Grinnan this time, not me and Kirtle. Grinnan was big and smart, and he had his own purposes. And I knew there was no magic in the world, just trickery on the innocent. Grinnan would never let anyone else trick me; he wanted that privilege all for himself.
‘Take your smelly smells from my garden this instant!’ the mudwife shouted.
Grinnan bowed as if she’d greeted him most civilly. ‘Madam, if you’d join us? There is plenty of this lovely bull-a-bess for you as well.’
‘I’d not touch my lips to such mess. What kind of foreign muck—’
Even I could hear the longing in her voice, that she was trying to shout down.
There before her he ladled out a bowlful—yellow, splashy, full of delicious lumps. Very humbly—he does humbleness well when he needs to, for such a big man—he took it to her. When she recoiled he placed it on the little table by the door, the one that I ran against in my clumsiness when escaping, so hard I still sometimes feel the bruise in my rib. I remember, I knocked it skittering out the door, and I flung it back meaning to trip up the mudwife. But instead I tripped up Kirtle, and the wife came out and plucked her up and bellowed after me and kicked the table onto the path, and ran out herself with Kirtle like a tortoise swimming from her fist and kicked the table aside again—
Bang! went the cottage door.
Grinnan came laughing quietly back to me.
‘She is ours. Once they’ve et your food, Hanny, you’re free to eat theirs. Fish and onion pie tonight, I’d say.’
‘Jealous, are we? Don’t like old Grinnan supping at other pots, hnh?’
‘It’s not that!’ I glared at his laughing face. ‘She’s so ugly, that’s all. So old. I don’t know how you can even think of—’
‘Well, I am no primrose myself, golden boy,’ he says. ‘And I’m grateful for any flower that lets me pluck her.’
I was not old and desperate enough to laugh at that joke. I pushed his soup bowl at him.
‘Ah, bull-a-bess,’ he said into the steam. ‘Food of gods and seducers.’