At fault

 

The city was drowning.

It would have been reasonable to blame the witch down in the stocks in the marketplace, but at the time I found that in poor taste. So I did not blame anything but the weather and the general decline of the world.

Whatever was at fault, however, I needed milk. And so I found myself in a futile rain cloak and under a futile umbrella, splashing through the streets.

The water went up to my ankles all the way through the residential district. Those streets were still paved then. It takes us a generation or two to abandon unhelpful old habits.

I turned the corner to the convenience store, expecting relief, but found a commotion in the doorway instead. People arguing, stomping their feet and letting the water splash up to their knees. Yelling something about distribution fairness and residential rights and soggy bread and the witch. I decided I wanted no part in that and moved on down the street in the direction of the shopping mall.

 

Of course, you know what it’s like, and at the same time you don’t. Downhill. Big mistake. But an even bigger mistake when all the water that’s gathering in the valley can’t seep into the ground, can’t go anywhere, but up. Up as in, water level rising.

And down there in that unfortunate valley, the stocks. And the brave guard, standing a noticeable way off, keeping just-so watchful-enough eyes on his charges. There were only two occupants left, the witch and a pretty young girl I hadn’t seen before.

The mall was across that sorry scene.

Spectators were few in this weather. Not everyone was as foolish as me.

I considered turning around instead of wading through knee-high water past that, but then I’d decided to go buy milk, and once I’d be safely at home, I’d regret not having any. That was my train of thought then. You can laugh at your old grandfather. Go ahead. Means hopefully you’ll be smarter.

 

So I walked on. Well, “walked” isn’t the right word. Tiptoed, steered in wide curves, hopped over particularly deep puddles and splash-landed in shallow ones. Slouched when the path took me too close to the stock personnel, witch and pretty girl and guard, all there performing for an ungrateful audience on a rainy day, dispatched there by the government and the good sense of the people.

The girl was hanging her head. Didn’t look at me, didn’t look at anyone. That was easier. Sure, you feel bad, but you can avoid it, and tell yourself neither of you wants to make contact, too unpleasant, you’d just embarrass her further. Best to just walk past.

The witch didn’t have that kind of decorum, though. She looked straight at me. If you’ve ever had… Yeah, of course you have. Back then, it was still rare. We weren’t used to having a witch stare at us. We didn’t know, was it stupid superstition to shrink back, or should we in fact be more afraid than we were? Well, at least I was like that. And the paper columns were full of that kind of back-and-forth.

It was unnerving. It’s unnerving even knowing that stare, right? Now imagine being unfamiliar with it. I couldn’t tell what was in it. I froze, stared back into those dark blue eyes, and tasted metal cause moments had passed and I’d bitten my lip. I was going to tear myself away, but then something wrapped around my ankles in the water, and then she rooted me further to the spot, by asking in that hoarse voice. “You don’t want to be here either, do you? What’s your errand?”

Any answer would have been better than the truth, any, and I was aware of the situation, and what the simple ‘either’ implied, and I wanted to justify my presence in this spot somehow, and what I said was “I wanted to buy milk.”

I thought I saw a smile there, just a tiny one, and the stuff underwater left my ankles alone, and I could move again. So I did.

“Bring me some,” she rasped behind me. “Something warm.”

I froze again but pushed myself onwards to the mall, pretending not to hear.

 

The mall itself was blissful normality. Everyone worked really hard at maintaining that image. Dry floors, electric light, the same bad radio music we were used to, even if the chatter in between named a date in the past, and sunny weather. I remember I almost bought fresh bread and salad before remembering that was a damned stupid idea. So I got some cans, and the milk I was there for. And after grinding my teeth in front of that shelf for a while, I took some extra, and some honey. There was no point in the honey, I told myself. Her raspy voice just made me want some comfort for my own throat once I got home. I’d probably catch a cold anyway from this outing. I decided not to think about it any further.

 

The detour through the mall led me past a hot coffee stand. It was crowded. Here we could all admit what the situation really was like. I sighed and got in line. Stupid. I could warm my own milk at home. This was a waste of time and money.

 

I walked out with a ceramic cup of hot milk with honey to go. I’d paid extra for the cup; didn’t bring my own, of course.

 

When I got to the stocks, one of them was empty.

The witch was still there. She looked straight at me as soon as she saw me. Then at the cup I was holding. Well, so much for all of that. The water was covering her knees now, and the guard… The guard stood even further away than before, to where the water only went up to his calves, haggling with some middle-aged man who was surely none of the local authorities. The young girl from the stocks stood at their side, looking disinterested.

I turned back to the witch. Possibly of my own volition. I’d like to think so.

“I thought we’d get along,” she said in barely a voice left.

I waded up to her and raised the cup in my hands and… Then I didn’t know what to do. You can’t hand a cup to someone in the stocks. I frowned. Should I hold it up to her lips? Would that even work? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing for her? Or did that not count anymore when you were in that situation?

She gave me that tiny smile again. “For me?”

I felt caught. For a moment I wished she could have been as unobtrusive as the other one so I could have just walked on.

“Yeah. I…”

“It’ll be my last drink. Don’t let it get cold.”

While I was still taken aback by that, she awkwardly pointed her eyes at the water level.

“No, come on, it won’t be that… They wouldn’t… This isn’t what’s normally…” I said it for her as well as my own benefit.

“You could lace it with poison,” she went on in her barely-a-voice. “That would make this all quicker.”

“No, come on,” I said again, feeling increasingly helpless. Why had I left the apartment that day? Why did I care?

Those blue eyes mustered me, I saw, and she looked like she was pondering something. Then her eyes beckoned me closer, so I came closer, and she said in an even lower voice: “Or it could make this stop.”

I got annoyed and grit my teeth. “Isn’t that the same?”

She shook her head, and looked up at the sky, then down to the water that was steadily rising. “This.”

I felt cold, and my thoughts were frozen in place same as I was. “Are you saying…” Witches. The rain. “They’re right?”

Her smile was sad and appraising. Those blue eyes were serious as always. “You can talk to the guard, too. Make it quick. He wants to leave, too.”

I bit down on my lip again. Then I went and talked to the guard.

“Ah good,” were his first words. He was shivering. “Let’s cut this short, alright. No weather for this. I name you a good price, and you take this off my hand, and I… conveniently look away.” His teeth chattered through the word ‘conveniently’. He dug into his coat pocket and drew out a bundle of keys for me to see.

I glanced at the witch.

She was watching me. You know that look. The ‘Are you about done with your chores?’ look.

There are times in one’s life when one’s got to say, screw the city.

 

The ceramic cup shattered when she tried to hold it. Turns out your grip isn’t the strongest after the stocks. She looked sadder at that than she had all day.

“I bought milk and honey for at home,” I said, and felt like more of an idiot that I had all day.

Your grandma nodded. “I thought we’d get along.”

Those were different times. These days everyone knows better, people and guards both.

But you know, sometimes wisdom is overrated.

 

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