Howl's Moving Castle (Howl's Moving Castle 1) - Page 5

“I am,” said the lady. “And let that teach you to meddle with things that belong to me.”

“I don’t think I did. There must be some mistake,” Sophie croaked. The man was now staring at her in utter horror, though she could not see why.

“No mistake, Miss Hatter,” said the Witch. “Come, Gaston.” She turned and swept to the shop door. While the man was humbly opening it for her, she turned back to Sophie. “By the way, you won’t be able to tell anyone you’re under a spell,” she said. The shop door tolled like a funeral bell as she left.

Sophie put her hands to her face, wondering what the man had stared at. She felt soft, leathery wrinkles. She looked at her hands. They were wrinkled too, and skinny, with large veins in the back and knuckles like knobs. She pulled her gray skirt against her legs and looked down at skinny, decrepit ankles and feet which had made her shoes all knobbly. They were the legs of someone about ninety and they seemed to be real.

Sophie got herself to the mirror, and found she had to hobble. The face in the mirror was quite calm, because it was what she expected to see. It was the face of a gaunt old woman, withered and brownish, surrounded by wispy white hair. Her own eyes, yellow and watery, stared out at her, looking rather tragic.

“Don’t worry, old thing,” Sophie said to the face. “You look quite healthy. Besides, this is much more like you really are.”

She thought about her situation, quite calmly. Everything seemed to have gone calm and remote. She was not even particularly angry with the Witch of the Waste.

“Well, of course I shall have to do for her when I get the chance,” she told herself, “but meanwhile, if Lettie and Martha can stand being one another, I can stand being like this. But I can’t stay here. Fanny would have a fit. Let’s see. This gray dress is quite suitable, but I shall need my shawl and some food.”

She hobbled over to the shop door and carefully put up the CLOSED notice. Her joints creaked as she moved. She had to walk bowed and slow. But she was relieved to discover that she was quite a hale old woman. She did not feel weak or ill, just stiff. She hobbled to collect her shawl, and wrapped it over her head and shoulders, as old women did. Then she shuffled through into the house, where she collected her purse with a few coins in it and a parcel of bread and cheese. She let herself out of the house, carefully hiding the key in the usual place, and hobbled away down the street, surprised at how calm she still felt.

She did wonder if she should say goodbye to Martha. But she did not like the idea of Martha not knowing her. It was best just to go. Sophie decided she would write to both her sisters when she got wherever she was going, and shuffled on, through the field where the Fair had been, over the bridge, and on into the country lanes beyond. It was a warm spring day. Sophie discovered that being a crone did not stop her enjoying the sight and smell of may in the hedgerows, though the sight was a little blurred. Her back began to ache. She hobbled sturdily enough, but she needed a stick. She searched the hedges as she went for a loose stake of some kind.

Evidently her eyes were not as good as they had been. She thought she saw a stick, a mile or so on, but when she hauled on it, it proved to be the bottom end of an old scarecrow someone had thrown into the hedge. Sophie heaved the thing upright. It had a withered turnip for a face. Sophie found she had some fellow feeling for it. Instead of pulling it to pieces and taking the stick, she stuck it between two branches of the hedge, so that it stood looming rakishly above the may, with the tattered sleeves on its stick arms fluttering over the hedge.

“There,” she said, and her cracked old voice surprised her into giving a cracked old cackle of laughter. “Neither of us are up to much, are we, my friend? Maybe you’ll get back to your field if I leave you where people can see you.” She set off up the lane again, but a thought struck her and she turned back. “Now if I wasn’t doomed to failure because of my position in the family,” she told the scarecrow, “you could come to life and offer me help in making my fortune. But I wish you luck anyway.”

She cackled again as she walked on. Perhaps she was a little mad, but then old women often were.

She found a stick an hour or so later when she sat down on the bank to rest and eat her bread and cheese. There were noises in the hedge behind her: little strangled squeakings, followed by heavings that shook may petals off the hedge. Sophie crawled on her bony knees to peer past leaves and flowers and thorns into the inside of the hedge, and discovered a thin gray dog in there. It was hopelessly trapped by a stout stick which had somehow got twisted into a rope that was tied round its neck. The stick had wedged itself between two branches of the hedge so that the dog could barely move. It rolled its eyes wildly at Sophie’s peering face.

As a girl, Sophie was scared of all dogs. Even as an old woman, she was quite alarmed by the two rows of white fangs in the creature’s open jaws. But she said to herself, “The way I am now, it’s scarcely worth worrying about,” and felt in her sewing pocket for her scissors. She reached into the hedge with the scissors and sawed away at the rope round the dog’s neck.

The dog was very wild. It flinched away from her and growled. But Sophie sawed bravely on. “You’ll starve or throttle to death, my friend,” she told the dog in her cracked old voice, “unless you let me cut you loose. In fact, I think someone has tried to throttle you already. Maybe that accounts for your wildness.” The rope had been tied quite tightly round the dog’s neck and the stick had been twisted viciously into it. It took a lot of sawing before the rope parted and the dog was able to drag itself out from under the stick.

“Would you like some bread and cheese?” Sophie asked it then. But the dog just growled at her, forced its way out through the opposite side of the hedge, and slunk away. “There’s gratitude for you!” Sophie said, rubbing her prickled arms. “But you left me a gift in spite of yourself.” She pulled the stick that had trapped the dog out of the hedge and found it was a proper walking stick, well trimmed and tipped with iron. Sophie finished her bread and cheese and set off walking again. The lane became steeper and steeper and she found the stick a great help. It was also something to talk to. Sophie thumped along with a will, chatting to her stick. After all, old people often talk to themselves.

“There’s two encounters,” she said, “and not a scrap of magical gratitude from either. Still, you’re a good stick. I’m not grumbling. But I’m surely due to have a third encoun

ter, magical or not. In fact, I insist on one. I wonder what it will be.”

The third encounter came toward the end of the afternoon when Sophie had worked her way quite high into the hills. A countryman came whistling down the lane toward her. A shepherd, Sophie thought, going home after seeing to his sheep. He was a well-set-up young fellow of forty or so. “Gracious!” Sophie said to herself. “This morning I’d have seen him as an old man. How one’s point of view does alter!”

When the shepherd saw Sophie mumbling to herself, he moved rather carefully over to the other side of the lane and called out with great heartiness, “Good evening to you, Mother! Where are you off to?”

“Mother?” said Sophie. “I’m not your mother, young man!”

“A manner of speaking,” the shepherd said, edging along against the opposite hedge. “I was only meaning a polite inquiry, seeing you walking into the hills at the end of the day. You won’t get down into Upper Folding before nightfall, will you?”

Sophie had not considered this. She stood in the road and thought about it. “It doesn’t matter really,” she said, half to herself. “You can’t be fussy when you’re off to seek your fortune.”

“Can’t you indeed, Mother?” said the shepherd. He had now edged himself downhill of Sophie and seemed to feel better for it. “Then I wish you good luck, Mother, provided your fortune don’t have nothing to do with charming folks’ cattle.” And he took off down the road in great strides, almost running, but not quite.

Sophie stared after him indignantly. “He thought I was a witch!” she said to her stick. She had half a mind to scare the shepherd by shouting nasty things after him, but that seemed a little unkind. She plugged on uphill, mumbling. Shortly, the hedges gave way to bare banks and the land beyond became heathery upland, with a lot of steepness beyond that covered with yellow, rattling grass. Sophie kept grimly on. By now her knobby old feet ached, and her back, and her knees. She became too tired to mumble and simply plugged on, panting, until the sun was quite low. And all at once it became quite clear to Sophie that she could not walk a step further.

She collapsed onto a stone by the wayside, wondering what she would do now. “The only fortune I can think of is a comfortable chair!” she gasped.

The stone proved to be on a sort of headland, which gave Sophie a magnificent view of the way she had come. There was most of the valley spread out beneath her in the setting sun, all fields and walls and hedges, the windings of the river, and the fine mansions of rich people glowing out from clumps of trees, right down to blue mountains in the far distance. Just below her was Market Chipping. Sophie could look down into its well-known streets. There was

Market Square

and Cesari’s. She could have tossed a stone down the chimney pots of the house next to the hat shop.

Tags: Diana Wynne Jones Howl's Moving Castle Fantasy
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