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The Scrivener by Eleanor Arnason

Eleanor Arnason ( eleanorarnason.blogspot.com ) is the author of six novels, two chapbooks and more than thirty short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and the Mythopoeic Society Award. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords, won a Minnesota Book Award. Her short story “Dapple” won the Spectrum Award. Other short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Sidewise and World Fantasy Awards. Her most recent book is a short collection of Big Mama Stories, published by Aqueduct Press in 2013. She lives in the Twin Cities Metro Area and is currently—very slowly—finishing a sequel to her novel Ring of Swords.

Families deal with grief in ways that are as alike as they are different. Following the loss of a loved one some families fall apart, some cling together, and in the moving fantasy that follows the survivors do everything they can to make one another happy and a wish come true.

STORY NOTE

“The Scrivener” began from a discussion—either on Facebook or in my fiction writing group, the Wyrdsmiths—about the necessity of plot. I decided to write a story about the elements deemed necessary in fiction. But the story morphed into a tale about a father who tries to shape his children’s lives. Because they love him, his daughters try to please him. But in the end, they chose to live their own lives, and he is wise enough to be happy.

I don’t much like rules for writing, and I get oppositional when I am told a story requires anything except words. So, I suspect “The Scrivener” is arguing that stories—like children—need to find their own way. If the result is good, we should be happy, even if the story does not turn out the way we planned.


The Scrivener by Eleanor Arnason

There was a scrivener who had three daughters. He lived in a great empire that stretched from west to east. Some parts of the empire were civilized and up-to-date, full of coffee shops and other amenities. Other parts were backward and primitive, the home of peasants and witches.

The scrivener lived in a provincial city, midway between civilization and the primitive. The streets were lined with shops, many of them selling foreign luxuries; there were cafes and coffee shops that had the latest newspapers and journals. In the marketplace, peasant farmers and hunters sold their traditional products. Outside the city were fields. Beyond the fields was a vast, dark forest.

He made his living in a modest way, writing letters for illiterate neighbors, drawing up bills of sale and even doing some accounting, for he was a man of many skills, who could do complicated sums and figure compound interest.

In spite of his skills and his adequate living, he had always dreamed of more: to be a writer of stories. But he lacked something, a divine spark, or so he believed. So he stuck to what he knew.

His wife died when the children were still young. He might have remarried, but he had loved the woman and had no desire to replace her. Three children were enough, even if none was a son.

Their mother had wanted to name them after fruits or flowers. But he had always dreamed of fathering a storyteller and insisted that they be named Imagination, Ornamentation, and Plot.  All three were active and quick to learn. Surely they could become what he could not.

He bought books of fables for them and took them every week to the marketplace to listen to the storytellers who sat there in the dust, reciting tales about heroes and dragons. The girls liked the fables and the oral narratives, but showed no inclination toward becoming authors.

Imagination, who was called Ima, said the stories she heard and read gave her wonderful dreams, which she treasured, but she had no desire to write them down.

Ornamentation, who was called Orna, liked individual words. She sang them as she embroidered. What she made were not true songs, which have meaning most of the time. Rather, they were random strings of words that chimed and tinkled, rhymed or rolled majestically, but told no coherent story. She also liked images and put them in her embroidery: flowers and fruit and—between these—tiny lords and ladies, delicate dragons, diminutive heroes with needle-like swords.

Plot said it was all silliness, and she would rather do accounting.

But the scrivener did not lose hope; and when the girls were grown up, he took them to a famous critic. She was a large, fat woman, who sat every day in one of the city’s cafes, wearing a caftan, smoking black cigarettes and drinking coffee or wine. Piled in the chair next to her were newspapers, literary reviews, and books, some leather bound, but most bound only in paper. There were coffee rings on the book covers and notes scribbled in the margins. The woman had a broad, arrogant face with a hawk nose and heavy-lidded eyes.

“Yes?” she said in her gruff, deep voice.

The scrivener told her that the dearest wish of his heart was to have a child who wrote stories, and he had brought his three daughters to be examined.

Each child had brought a story, which she had written reluctantly, not out of fear of her father, but rather out of fear of disappointing him. He was a kind, gentle man, whose only failing was his desire to have an author.

The critic waved the eldest daughter into a chair, drank some coffee, lit a new cigarette, and read Ima’s story, grunting now and then. When she was done, she put the sheets of paper down, frowned mightily, and said, “Next.”

Orna replaced her sister in the chair and handed over her story. Once again the critic drank coffee, lit a new cigarette, and read. A waiter came by and refilled her coffee cup, bringing also a pastry on a plate. The critic loved astringent fiction, bitter coffee, strong cigarettes, and pastries full of honey. Her taste in wine was uncritical. “One cannot judge everything,” she always said.

She finished Orna’s story, grunted loudly, and said, “Next.”

Now Plot sat down and handed over her story. By this time she was helping her father with accounting, and she had written the story on ledger paper. “There is nothing here except numbers,” the critic said.

“Turn it over,” Plot replied.

The critic did and found a short, neat narrative about a prince who needed a new accounting system and how he found a girl able to set one up.

The critic finished the story and looked at the scrivener. “Your daughters have no talent at all.” She pointed a thick finger at Ima. “This one has a flood of ideas and images set down in no order, as confusing as a dream. And this one—” she pointed at Orna—“is simply babbling words, without any sense of what they mean or should mean within the structure of a story.

“Finally”—she frowned mightily—“your last daughter has written a story with no color, mood, atmosphere, imagery or development of character. She might as well have written rows of numbers.”

The scrivener wrung his hands. “Can nothing be done?”

The critic raised a hand, and the scrivener waited while she ate her pastry, washing it down with coffee.  Then she lit another black cigarette. She was a chain smoker of the worst kind and should have died young.

Finally she said, “There is a witch in the nearby forest, living in the forest’s black heart in a hut that stands on ostrich legs.  She might be able to help, if she is willing. But remember that witches—like critics—are capricious and have their own agendas.”

The scrivener thanked her for her advice, then herded his daughters home.

Remember, in considering what happened next, that the daughters loved their father and wanted to please him and also to protect him from harsh reality.

He sat them down and asked them if they would be willing to seek out the witch. The three girls looked at one another.

“Yes,” said Plot. “But only one at a time. Ima does all the shopping, and Orna cares for the house. I help you with accounting. It would be too difficult if all of us left at once.”

The scrivener agreed that this was a good idea. The three girls then drew straws, and the eldest got the short one. “I will set out tomorrow,” she said bravely.

On the morrow, she packed a bag with food and other necessities and set out, taking a stage coach to the forest edge. There she climbed out.

The forest lay before her, rising abruptly from farmland. Its edge was a mixture of scrub trees: aspens and birches, with a few spindly maples and oaks.  Farther back it was all evergreens, rising tall and dark toward the sunlit sky. In spite of the bright sky, the forest looked ominous to Ima, and her heart quailed.

But she had promised her father, and she would not fail him. Shouldering her pack, she marched into the forest. The edge seemed harmless. Sunlight came in around the scrub trees, and they were attractive: the aspens and birches flipping yellowing leaves in a light wind, the maples showing touches of red.  She followed a narrow path among ferns. Birds flew above her, and small animals—mice or ground squirrels—scurried through the ferns. Nothing seemed dangerous, except possibly a croaking raven.

As she got deeper into the forest, the shadows grew thicker. The ground was bare, except for a thick carpet of pine needles. Above her, pine branches hissed in the wind. Names do matter, and Ima had rather too much imagination. The forest began to frighten her. But she did not want to disappoint her father, so she kept on.  Noon passed, then the afternoon. Evening came. The shadows darkened. Finally, when she could barely see, she came to a break in the forest. A huge pine had fallen and lay across a clearing full of ferns. Overhead was the moon, one day off full, flooding the clearing with light. It should have reassured her, but it did not.  She hunched down against the fallen trunk and ate the food she’d brought: bread and cheese and sausage. For drink she had wine in a flask, a good red that went with the sausage.

All she could think of was the danger around her. Who could say what wild animals lived in the forest? There might be trolls as well as witches, and forest spirits of every variety, all of them cruel. In the distance, a fox barked.

All night she sat and shivered, too afraid to sleep. In the morning, she decided to go home. Her father would be disappointed, but she did not have the courage or the lack of imagination necessary to continue.

She soon discovered that she had lost her path in the darkness. All day she wandered through the forest, exhausted by lack of sleep. Late in the afternoon, she came upon a woodcutter, a tall, handsome young man. “What on earth are you doing here?” he asked. “The forest is dangerous.”

She explained she had gotten lost, but did not mention the witch. She was embarrassed too, since she no longer had any intention of seeking the woman out.

“I can guide you to the forest edge,” he said. “But not today. It’s too late. Come back to my cabin. My mother and I will shelter you for the night. In the morning, I will escort you out of the forest.”

Because of her imagination, which was good at seeing peril or at least its possibility, Ima hesitated. But she had no other choice. So she went with the woodsman to a little cabin built of logs.  It was cheery looking, with smoke spiraling out of the chimney. Inside, a fire burned in the fireplace, and a stew bubbled in a pot. The woodcutter’s mother was there, an old woman with a kind face.

Ima got out the last of her food to share. All three of them sat merrily around a table, eating and drinking the last of Ima’s wine.

“Why do you live so far in the forest?” Ima asked.

“We like our privacy,” the mother replied.

“And this is where the trees are,” the woodcutter added. “I make our living by cutting them down and burning them into charcoal, which I take into the city and sell. It’s a long walk with charcoal on my back. But it gives us what money we need. For the most part, the forest provides.”

At length they showed her to a bed. Ima lay down and went right to sleep. She woke in the middle of the night, when moonlight shone in the cabin door. Why was it open? she wondered and got up to shut it.

Outside, in the clearing in front of the cabin, two wolves frolicked. One looked young. The other seemed old, but still vigorous.

Ima was too frightened to scream. Instead she crept back into the cabin’s one room. A few coals still glowed in the fireplace. By their light and the moonlight pouring through the door, she searched the cabin. The beds that should have been occupied by the woodcutter and his mother were empty, their covers flung back.

Ima knew what this meant. She was spending the night with werewolves.

The cabin had only one door, but there were several windows. Slowly, carefully, quietly, Ima opened the shutters on one of these, climbed out and fled into the forest.

She ran and walked all night, not stopping until morning. She could go no farther then, so lay down and slept.

A cough woke her. She opened her eyes, saw the woodcutter and screamed.

“Beg pardon?” he said.

“You are a werewolf! And so is your mother!”

“Yes, but we are wolves only one night a month, not by intention, but because we must. Don’t think we are monsters. When we are wolves, we do nothing to harm people. We hunt animals—mostly voles and rabbits—and enjoy the way it feels to run with wolf muscles and smell with a wolf nose. The rest of the time, I am an ordinary woodcutter, she is an ordinary mother.

“You went in the right direction when you fled our cabin, which is good. I suspect you don’t want to spend another night in the forest. But we’ll have to start now, if we are going to reach the coach stop before nightfall.”

He held out his hand. Ima took it reluctantly, and he lifted her upright with surprising ease. A strong man. Well, he spent his day cutting down trees.

It was late afternoon when they reached the road by the forest. He waited with her till the coach came. When it was in sight, he said, “Please don’t tell people about my mother and me. We live in the forest to be safe, but I do come into the city. I don’t want to be stoned or arrested. I could have harmed you, when you were alone in the forest. I didn’t. Instead, I helped you. Remember that.”

The coach stopped. He helped her on. As it drove off, she looked back and saw him standing by the road, tall and lean and handsome, as rangy as a wolf.

When she got home, she told her father, “The forest was too frightening. I did not find the witch.” She didn’t talk about the woodcutter. The story was too strange, and she did not want to endanger the man or his mother.

The scrivener looked at his two other daughters with hope. They chose straws. This time Orna got the short one.

The next day she packed a bag and caught a coach to the forest. Like Ima, she climbed out at the forest edge and found a path. She lacked her sister’s fearful imagination. Instead of possible danger, she noticed small birds in the pine branches and interesting fungi. Her path led her through clearings full of late summer grasses, faded to shades of tan and gold. Everything seemed lovely and enchanting.

She came finally to a meadow by a river. It was full of autumn flowers. Butterflies fluttered over the blossoms. A blue and orange kingfisher dove from a branch into the river and rose with a minnow in its beak.

“How beautiful!” Orna exclaimed.

“Indeed it is,” said a melodious voice behind her.

She turned and beheld the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. The maid was naked, but her long, golden hair acted as a garment, falling over her body and reaching her knees.

“Who are you?” Orna asked.

“A forest spirit,” the woman—really a girl—replied. “In countries to the south of here, I would be a dryad or naiad. To the east, I would be a rusalka, as in the famous opera by Antonin Dvorak. North of here, I might be a nixie or huldra. But here in this forest I am only a spirit.”

If you are wondering how the girl knew Dvorak’s opera Rusalka, a twentieth century work, remember that fairy tales and their creatures exist outside time.

And you may have noticed that many of the spirits mentioned—the rusalka, huldra, and nixie—are usually considered malevolent and dangerous. Orna did not know this; and the spirit she met was in fact mostly harmless, though she could enchant and distract.

Orna took out her lunch and shared it with the spirit. Then, both of them tipsy with white wine, they picked flowers and waded in the river shallows, gathering round, smooth stones.

Anther spirit appeared, naked like the first, but clothed with long, red hair. Then another came; Orna did not see from where. This one was brown-skinned with wavy black hair that swirled around her like a cloak. Her eyes were like the eyes of deer, large and dark.

Orna’s food was gone. But they had apples taken from orchards gone wild and a fish—a fine, large trout—the dark maiden caught with her bare hands.

That was dinner, cooked over a fire. The roasted apples were coated with honey from the combs of wild bees. The fish was flavored with wild onions and salt from Orna’s pack.

Orna had wine left. They ate and drank and got a little drunk.  Orna ended in a huddle with the three dryads. Her clothes came off her. Curious fingers caressed her and soft lips kissed her face and body.

She was a modest maiden in a conservative society. She had never experienced anything like this before. Of course it overwhelmed her. She dove into it like a kingfisher into the river and brought up her first real orgasm like a struggling, silver fish.

At last, exhausted, she lay in the meadow’s grass. Overhead, the night sky was full of stars. The dryads lay around her. “Why are you here?” one asked in a drowsy voice.

“I am seeking the witch who lives at the forest’s black heart.”

“No! No!” the dryads cried. “She is ugly and dangerous. Stay here with us.”

What did she owe her father? Orna wondered. Respect. Love. But not the destruction of her life. If the witch were dangerous, she would avoid her.

She stayed with the dryads. By day, they wandered through the forest, sometimes gathering food and sometimes watching the life around them: green pines and yellowing ferns, birds flocking for their autumn migration. The forest shadows held numerous animals: deer, red foxes, badgers, red squirrels, weasels, tiny mice and voles.  The dryads did not harm any of these. They were not hunters.

In the evening they made love in the meadow. Their nights were spent in an earthen cave, formed when a giant pine fell over. The dryads filled the cave half full with grass, and the four women kept each other warm.

One morning Orna woke and found the meadow was covered in frost. She was cold, in spite of the cave and the dryads. Winter was coming. She could not continue to live like this.

“What will you do?” she asked the dryads.

“We sleep through the cold months inside the trunks of trees—except for our sister here.” The dryad who was speaking gestured toward the dark maiden. “She will sleep at the bottom of the river, safe below the ice.”

“I can’t do that,” Orna said.

“Then go home to humanity, but return in the spring.”

Orna kissed the dryads goodbye and went home. When she arrived, ragged and dirty, her father embraced her and said, “We thought you had died in the forest.”

“No,” Orna replied. “But I did not find the witch. The forest distracted me. I wandered a long time, not knowing where I was.”

This was misleading, but not a direct lie. She didn’t want to talk about the dryads. The city’s conservative society did not approve of magical creatures or sex between women.

Her father wisely did not ask more questions, but told his other daughters to fill a tub with hot water and find new clothes for Orna. They did gladly, happy that Orna was home.

Once she was clean and neatly dressed and eating a good dinner, the scrivener said to her, “Don’t think we failed to search for you, dear child. I went to the forest edge and talked to the farmers there.  No one had seen you, though they do not go far into the forest, as they told me. They advised me to ask the hunters and charcoal burners, who went farther in.  We found them here in the city, selling their goods in the market. A rough lot, but not bad hearted. They hadn’t seen you, either. We offered a reward, and everyone—farmers, hunters and charcoal burners—said they would keep an eye out.  It was all to no avail. You had vanished.”

Orna felt guilt, but she couldn’t think of a way to apologize or explain.

That left the youngest daughter, Plot. The next day she packed her bag and caught a coach to the forest. Unlike her sister Ima, she was not troubled by imagination; and unlike her sister Orna, she was not easily distracted. She marched firmly into the forest. After three days, she came to the home of the witch, which was a hut made of logs. It stood in a clearing, surrounded by towering pines. In its own way it towered, resting atop long ostrich legs. Plot looked up, wondering how she could reach the door.  Then she heard a noise in back of her and ducked behind a pine.

A large, fat, solid woman came out of the forest. She was dressed entirely in black. Even the boots on her large feet were as black as night. She called out:

“Hut mine, obey my summons.
Bend thy legs and let me in.”

The ostrich legs folded, and the hut was lowered to the ground. The witch entered. A moment later, before the hut raised itself, Plot ran through the door.

“What?” cried the witch, who had a wide, arrogant face and a beaklike nose. “How dare you sneak in here?”

“My father sent me,” Plot replied. “I love and respect him, and I came because he asked me to. He wants me to be an author. But the great critic in the city says I have no ability.”

“My sister,” the witch replied. “The way she smokes, she would die of a lung disease, except that I send her magic potions which protect her respiratory system.

“Writing is a terrible way to make a living, almost as bad as criticism. I send my sister charms, which enchant editors, so they publish her essays and reviews. That has given her a great reputation, though not much money. Fortunately, she wants fame more than money.”

“I can also do accounting,” Plot said.

“That’s better. A woman can make a living at accounting,” the witch said. She waved in a mystical manner, and the hut stood up. “Since you’re here, you might as well make yourself useful. Make dinner.”

Plot found root vegetables in the witch’s storeroom, along with a fresh, plucked chicken. She made a broth and then a soup, full of vegetables and pieces of chicken. It took all day, while the witch grumbled. “Can’t you be quicker?”

“A soup takes the time it takes,” Plot replied.

They finally sat down to dinner. The witch tasted the soup and grimaced. “Can’t you do better?”

“I can only do as well as I can,” Plot replied.

Though the witch was grouchy, the soup was actually quite good, thick and nourishing, an excellent meal for a cold autumn evening. There was bread and cheese and beer, as well.

When they finished, the witch said, “There is a stream at the edge of my clearing. You can take the dishes there and wash them tomorrow.”

“Can you make me an author?” Plot asked.

“We will see.”

So began Plot’s time with the witch, who was demanding and evasive, but also interesting. As mentioned before, Plot was not easily frightened, nor easily distracted. She had promised her father to give this enterprise a good effort, and she would. In addition, she had never met a witch before. She wanted to learn how a magic-worker did her work.

Remembering how much her family had worried about her sister Orna, she sent messages home, for even deep in the forest, the witch had visitors. People came, bringing gifts and problems that required magic. Most of the problems involved health, though there were also romantic problems, people who wanted potions to attract someone or make someone lose interest.

The witch told Plot that she did her best with curing potions. “Most people are worth saving.” When she made a love potion, it would work, but only so far as creating a mild interest. “The lover must do most of the work himself or herself,” the witch said. “I will not force anyone into love.” She felt differently about indifference potions. These always worked. “No one should be troubled by an unwanted lover.”

Several of these people went into the city and were willing to stuff a note under the scrivener’s door. “Don’t worry, dear father. I have found the witch and am staying with her. I am safe, and everything is fine.” But they would do no more, since they were mostly poor folk, and witches were not entirely respectable, being relics of a former time.

Plot kept the hut clean and made meals. Over time—through the long, cold, snowy winter—she learned enough to help the witch with potions. The hut took care of the snow in the clearing by stamping it down with its big ostrich feet. In addition, it broke the ice that formed on the stream. All the stamping and breaking made the hut jerk and shake. This was fine with Plot. If the hut had not done the work, she would have had to shovel and chop ice.  She knew the witch well enough to know this.

You might think that people wouldn’t come in the winter. But sickness and love are strong drivers. There were fewer visitors after the snow fell, but they did not stop. Instead they came wrapped in heavy coats and wearing high boots. The ostrich legs knelt down for them and the witch listened to their stories, as did Plot. Life was not simple, the scrivener’s daughter learned. She could see that the witch’s potions were not enough to solve every problem.

Most of the clients were peasants. At best, their lives were precarious, dependent on the weather, which was often capricious. The witch could help them with illness and love, but there was no charm that would make the weather reliable or people rich. Money had its own magic, the witch said, which was different from the magic of witches; and weather systems were too large for anyone to control. In spite of everything the witch did, her clients still worried about harvests and taxes, their own futures and the fates of their animals and children.

She did make charms that called rain and drove away pests. These helped some. “Though bugs can learn to resist the magic used against them,” the witch said. “And there is no way to make the rain consistent. At best, I nudge it a little.”

“Are you going to help me?” Plot asked the witch from time to time.

“You are a better house cleaner than you were when you came, a better cook and a better maker of potions. All this is useful. In addition, you know more about the world and the lives of other people.”

“My father wants me to be a writer of stories.”

“What do you want?” the witch replied.
Plot could not say.

Spring came finally. Plot said, “I need to go. My father will be worrying.”

The witch gave her a considering look. She knew that Plot could not be distracted, but would always go directly to her goal. This was a virtue in an ordinary person, though not in a storyteller or a story.

“Go, then,” the witch said. “But come back. I need an assistant.”

So Plot packed her bag and walked to the road at the edge of the forest. Everything around her was fresh and tender and green. The trees were full of migrating birds.  She waited at the coach stop. The coach appeared and carried her back to the city through spring fields.

When she got home, the house was empty, except for her father, sitting in his study and writing out contracts.

“Where are my sisters?” she asked.

“Ima had a visitor who came again and again,” her father said. “A woodsman she had met in the forest. He was one of those who promised to look for Orna. First he came to report on his searching, but it was soon evident that he came to see Ima, and he kept coming even after Orna returned.

“At first, she was nervous around him. No one had courted her before, and young girls are always nervous in this situation. But he kept coming through the worst of the winter, always courteous and obviously in love. He brought her gifts, rabbit pelts and deerskins and venison. A good provider—and a good son.  He always spoke warmly of his mother, and he always treated me with respect. A good son is likely to be a good husband.

“In the end, Ima agreed to marry him and move to his cabin in the forest. So that is what happened to her.”

“What about Orna?” Plot asked.

“She met some women during her stay in the forest. Once spring came, she wanted to visit them again. I could tell she wouldn’t be happy till she saw them, so I told her to go and stay as long as she wanted. A good parent must let go of his children in the end, and I know now that neither of them will be an author. What about you, my darling? I got your notes, but they were all brief and stuck under my door.”

“I found the witch, but she gave me nothing that will make me a teller of stories. She asked me to become her assistant. I think I will.”

“Ah,” said the scrivener. “Well, Ima found a husband in the forest, and Orna found friends. A job may be equally good.”

“Yes,” said Plot. “But it isn’t right that you are alone, dear father.”

“I have hired a housekeeper. I could afford to, since Ima left me all the skins that the woodcutter gave her. I sold them in the marketplace for good money, and he has promised to bring me more.  As I said before, the lad is a good provider.

“I don’t know if Orna will bring anything back from her visit, though she mentioned honey and berries and hard-to-find mushrooms. I will get by, dear Plot.”

“Well, then,” said Plot.

They had dinner, made by the housekeeper, who was an excellent cook. Afterward they sat by a fire. The evenings were still cool. Plot told her father about the witch and her customers. Their stories were not large and grand, like the stories told in the marketplace. They were small tales of illness, romance, family quarrels, good or bad weather. The great twentieth century Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness told stories like these, except that he wrote novels. You ought to read his Independent People.

Plot’s narratives were brief and to the point. Some were happy. An illness was cured. In other cases, the witch could not solve the problem. A lover came back and complained that a love potion had not worked. Families continued to quarrel. The harvest was not good.

Plot lacked Laxness’s humor and sense of irony, which can be seen as a failing. But she had his clear vision and his respect for ordinary people, which she had learned in the hut atop ostrich legs. Life was hard, and people did the best they could. Their lives did not become epic, unless a writer as good as Laxness was writing. But they were worth hearing about—and worth helping, as the witch did, though she was not always successful.  Even a witch can only do so much.

When she was done, her father said, “You are certainly a better storyteller than before. But these stories will not sell in the marketplace. People want to hear about heroes and dragons and fair maidens in distress. Maybe it would be a good idea for you to rejoin the witch—or stay at home and do accounting.”

“I will rejoin the witch,” Plot said.

Her father felt a little unhappy, but he was not going to stand in the way of any child. Ima and Orna had taught him a lesson. We cannot determine how our children turn out. They cannot live our dreams.

“Good enough,” he said. “Please come back to visit, and if you ever decide to tell stories about heroes and dragons, I would be happy to hear them.”

The next day, Plot packed a new bag and set out for the forest. On the way, she passed the cafe where the critic sat.

“You are the girl with the ridiculous name,” the critic said, a cigarette in her hand and a cloud of smoke twisting around her. A glass of wine stood in front of her. Plot had no idea how she could taste it through the tobacco. “What was it?”

“Plot,” the scrivener’s daughter said. “But I’m thinking of changing it to Amelia.”

“A good idea,” the critic said in the firm and considered tone that critics often use. She drew on her cigarette and puffed out smoke. “Did you ever learn to write?”

“No,” Amelia answered. “But your sister has offered me an apprenticeship.” She set down her bag and considered the critic. She could see the resemblance between the two sisters clearly now, both of them tall and wide, with arrogant faces and beaky noses. They had the same eyes: sharp and knowing under heavy lids.  “I don’t know what I want to be yet. I’ll study with your sister, and think about my future.”

“Good enough,” the critic said. “There are too many writers in the world already. I try to cut them down, but they spring back up. On the other hand, there are too few good witches. Always remember, no matter what you end up doing, stay away from stories about heroes and dragons. They have been done to death.”

Amelia went on, carrying her bag, feeling happy at the thought of returning to the hut with ostrich legs. Maybe that job would not work out. If so, she could always go back to accounting. And maybe she would write a few stories down for her own pleasure. Or maybe not.

FOR PATRICK

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P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519

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