“Of course not!” Sophie snapped. Her aches made her irritable. “They look at me and run for their lives. What are they? All the girls whose hearts you ate?”
Howl laughed. “No, just simple spiders,” he said and went dreamily away upstairs.
Michael sighed. He went into the broom cupboard and hunted until he found an old folding bed, a straw mattress, and some rugs, which he put into the arched space under the stairs. “You’d better sleep here tonight,” he told Sophie.
“Does that mean Howl’s going to let me stay?” Sophie asked.
“I don’t know!” Michael said irritably. “Howl never commits himself to anything. I was here six months before he seemed to notice I was living here and made me his apprentice. I just thought a bed would be better than the chair.”
“Then thank you very much,” Sophie said gratefully. The bed was indeed more comfortable than a chair, and when Calcifer complained he was hungry in the night, it was an easy matter for Sophie to creak her way out and give him another log.
In the days that followed, Sophie cleaned her way remorselessly through the castle. She really enjoyed herself. Telling herself she was looking for clues, she washed the window, she cleaned out the oozing sink, and she made Michael clear everything off the workbench and the shelves so that she could scrub them. She had everything out of the cupboards and down from the beams and cleaned those too. The human skull, she fancied, began to look as long-suffering as Michael. It had been moved so often. Then she tacked an old sheet to the beams nearest the fireplace and forced Calcifer to bend his head down while she swept the chimney. Calcifer hated that. He crackled with mean laughter when Sophie discovered that soot had got all over the room and she had to clean it all again. That was Sophie’s trouble. She was remorseless, but she lacked method. But there was this method to her remorselessness: she calculated that she could not clean this thoroughly without sooner or later coming across Howl’s hidden hoard of girls’ souls, or chewed hearts—or else something that explained Calcifer’s contract. Up the chimney, guarded by Calcifer, had struck her as a good hiding place. But there was nothing there but quantities of soot, which Sophie stored in bags in the yard. The yard was high on her list of hiding places.
Every time Howl came in, Michael and Calcifer complained loudly about Sophie. But Howl did not seem to attend. Nor did he seem to notice the cleanliness. And nor did he notice that the food closet became very well stocked with cakes and jam and the occasional lettuce.
For, as Michael had prophesied, word had gone round Porthaven. People came to the door to look at Sophie. They called her Mrs. Witch in Porthaven and Madam Sorceress in Kingsbury. Word had gone round the capital too. Though the people who came to the Kingsbury door were better dressed than those in Porthaven, no one in either place liked to call on someone so powerful without an excuse. So Sophie was always having to pause in her work to nod and smile and take in a gift, or to get Michael to put up a quick spell for someone. Some of the gifts were nice things—pictures, strings of shells, and useful aprons. Sophie used the aprons daily and hung the shells and pictures round her cubbyhole under the stairs, which soon began to look very homelike indeed.
Sophie knew she would miss this when Howl turned her out. She became more and more afraid that he would. She knew he could not go on ignoring her forever.
She cleaned the bathroom next. That took her days, because Howl spent so long in it every day before he went out. As soon as he went, leaving it full of steam and scented spells, Sophie moved in. “Now we’ll see about that contract!” she muttered at the bath, but her main target was of course the shelf of packets, jars, and tubes. She took every one of them down, on the pretext of scrubbing the shelf, and spent most of a day carefully going through them to see if the ones labeled SKIN, EYES, and HAIR were in fact pieces of girl. As far as she could tell, they were all just creams and powders and paint. If they once had been girls, then Sophie thought Howl had used the tube FOR DECAY on them and rotted them down the washbasin too thoroughly to recall. But she hoped they were only cosmetics in the packets.
She put the things back on the shelf and scrubbed. That night, as she sat aching in the chair, Calcifer grumbled that he had drained one hot spring dry for her.
“Where are the hot springs?” Sophie asked. She was curious about everything these days.
“Under the Porthaven Marshes mostly,” Calcifer said. “But if you go on like this, I’ll have to fetch hot water from the Waste. When are you going to stop cleaning and find out how to break my contract?”
“In good time,” said Sophie. “How can I get the terms out of Howl if he’s never in? Is he always away this much?”
“Only when he’s after a lady,” Calcifer said.
When the bathroom was clean and gleaming, Sophie scrubbed the stairs and the landing upstairs. Then she moved on into Michael’s small front room. Michael, who by this time seemed to be accepting Sophie gloomily as a sort of natural disaster, gave a yell of dismay and pounded upstairs to rescue his most treasured possessions. They were in an old box under his worm-eaten little bed. As he hurried the box protectively away, Sophie glimpsed a blue ribbon and a spun-sugar rose in it, on top of what seemed to be letters.
“So Michael has a sweetheart!” she said to herself as she flung the window open—it opened into the street in Porthaven too—and heaved his bedding across the sill to air. Considering how nosy she had lately become, Sophie was rather surprised at herself for not asking Michael who his girl was and how he kept her safe from Howl.
She swept such quantities of dust and rubbish from Michael’s room that she nearly swamped Calcifer trying to burn it all.
“You’ll be the death of me! You’re as heartless as Howl!” Calcifer choked. Only his green hair and a blue piece of his long forehead showed.
Michael put his precious box in the drawer of the workbench and locked the drawer. “I wish Howl would listen to us!” he said. “Why is this girl taking him so long?”
The next day Sophie tried to start on the backyard. But it was raining in Porthaven that day, driving against the window and pattering in the chimney, making Calcifer hiss with annoyance. The yard was part of the Porthaven house too, so it was pouring out there when Sophie opened the door. She put her apron over her head and rummaged a little, and before she got too wet, she found a bucket of whitewash and a large paintbrush. She took these indoors and set to work on the walls. She found an old stepladder in the broom cupboard and she whitewashed the ceiling between the beams too. It rained for the next two days in Porthaven, though when Howl opened the door with the knob green-blob-down and stepped out onto the hill, the weather there was sunny, with big cloud shadows racing over the heather faster than the castle could move. Sophie whitewashed her cubbyhole, the stairs, the landing, and Michael’s room.
“What’s happened in here?” Howl asked when he came in on the third day. “It seems much lighter.”
“Sophie,” Michael said in a voice of doom.
“I should have guessed,” Howl said as he disappeared into the bathroom.
“He noticed!” Michael whispered to Calcifer. “The girl must be giving in at last!”
It was still drizzling in Porthaven the next day. Sophie tied on her headcloth, rolled up her sleeves, and girded on her apron. She collected her besom, her bucket, and her soap, and as soon as Howl was out of the door, she set off like an elderly avenging angel to clean Howl’s bedroom.
She had left that until last for fear of what she would find. She had not even dared peep into it. And that was silly, she thought as she hobbled up the stairs. By now it was clear that Calcifer did all the strong magic in the castle and Michael did all the hackwork, while Howl gadded off catching girls and exploiting the other two just as Fanny had exploited her. Sophie had never found Howl particularly frightening. Now she felt nothing but contempt.
She arrived on the landing and found Howl standing in the doorway of his bedroom. He was leaning lazily on one hand, completely blocking her way.
“No you don’t,” he said quite pleasantly. “I want it dirty, thank you.”