My life, which for so long had traveled along the same well-worn tracks, soon took on an entirely different rhythm. For six days of the week I puttered around much as I always had: feeding and milking Goat, tending to my garden, grumbling at the state of the cottage. On the seventh day, I abused the little girl.
She was a hard worker, I would give her that. I gave her every chore I could think of, and she did them without complaint; she even came up with some herself. Early in the morning she would come down the path, rubbing sleep from her eyes; she worked all day with the exception of half an hour for the lunch she brought in her basket; just as the bugs were beginning to come out in the evening she made her way back home. She left just as exhausted as she had come: after a day full of fetching and carrying and cleaning, her little arms were barely able to lift her basket. But as successful as my attempts to tire her out were in the physical realm…they did nothing at all to stop her talking.
She told me her name — Rafia — and the names of every blessed goat and sheep on her parent’s farm. She talked of the flowers growing on the sides of the roads and wanted to know all of their names, too. And that was the other thing — she asked so many questions!
Why was the house so dirty? What kind of spider was that? How old was I? When did I decide to become a witch? What language was this book written in? Was there a potion that could make someone — her brother, I gathered — have nightmares? Why did witches attract storms?
I found myself answering her. At least when I was talking she wasn’t, and if explaining how to tell the difference between a daylily and an iris when they weren’t in bloom kept the girl quiet, I would do it. She was a frenetic maelstrom of activity, and I spent the entirety of “Rafia’s days”, as I started to think of them, longing for the somber quiet of my solitude.
And yet that quiet no longer held the same peace for me. After three or four visits with Rafia I found the silence to be oppressive, stifling. I spoke aloud, reciting spells and recipes and strings of nonsense to keep it from creeping under my skin, filling my nose and mouth, suffocating me.
“So you’ve ruined even loneliness for me, have you?” I sighed. Sitting at the table, sipping my cup of tea, with three days until she came again, I was still thinking of her. “Insidious little parasite.”
The weeks passed, and the days grew hot and heavy. Dark clouds gathered overhead, promising rain. I had Rafia sit inside with a pot of glue, a heavy bone needle, and thick waxed thread, repairing the bindings of my books. It was slow work, since the little minx read each tome as she repaired it.
I made lists. Things she should do around the house. Things she should learn. I started getting up earlier – instead of lying in bed while the birds flirted and fought, I rose and neatened my bed and made tea for two. Sometimes I found myself staring out the window, watching the road for a little figure skipping her way toward me. Then I made myself sit down at the table and wait for the rap of a little hand against the door.
Somehow I no longer resented her intrusion on my solitude; somehow I now looked forward to her arrival.
Eventually I ran out of things for her to do. Oh, there was always dusting and sweeping and tending to Goat. Pulling weeds. Washing and airing my bedding and clothes (even the undergarments – I am too old now for embarrassment). But the larger tasks were done, all save those too large for a little girl, and that left us with time to spare. When the weather was fine I took Rafia into the woods and taught her the plants’ uses; when it was not we sat inside and talked, a fire crackling in the hearth, and listened to the rain.
It was on one of those fine days that things changed once again. We had returned from the woods, baskets full of plants, which Rafia hung from the cottage rafters with good cheer, as it necessitated my letting her stand on the table. I hated doing it — what if the child fell? — but I certainly could not reach, and the herbs needed drying.
The task done, I chased her outside to play while I made my lunch. She had let Goat out of the shed to graze, and got it into her silly head to make her a daisy-chain collar. I watched through the window as her hands worked. Pluck a daisy, slit the stem, thread it through. I had done it myself, in my childhood. It was a simple enough activity.
Soon Rafia had plucked all the daisies nearby, but she didn’t get up; instead, she leaned farther and farther over, fingers stretching to reach the next stem. Pluck, slit, thread it through.
Then she reached over, and the next daisy jumped into her hand.
I don’t think she noticed; she was simply reaching, and then the stem met her fingers. But I knew what I was looking at. That flower had been inches from her hand, and then it had been grasped in her fingers.
I sipped at my tea.
Well. That changes things.