The room turned dim. Huge, cloudy, human-looking shapes bellied up in all four corners and advanced on Sophie and Michael, howling as they came. The howls began as moaning horror, and went up to despairing brays, and then up again to screams of pain and terror. Sophie pressed her hands to her ears, but the screams pressed through her hands, louder and louder still, more horrible every second. Calcifer shrank hurriedly down in the grate and flickered his way under his lowest log. Michael grabbed Sophie by her elbow and dragged her to the door. He spun the knob to blue-down, kicked the door open, and got them both out into the street in Porthaven as fast as he could.
The noise was almost as horrible out there. Doors were opening all down the road and people were running out with their hands over their ears.
“Ought we to leave him alone in that state?” Sophie quavered.
“Yes,” said Michael. “If he thinks it’s your fault, then definitely.”
They hurried through the town, pursued by throbbing screams. Quite a crowd came with them. In spite of the fact that the fog had now become a seeping sea drizzle, everyone made for the harbor or the sands, where the noise seemed easier to bear. The gray vastness of the sea soaked it up a little. Everyone stood in damp huddles, looking out at the misty white horizon and the dripping ropes on the moored ships while the noise became a gigantic, heartbroken sobbing. Sophie reflected that she was seeing the sea close for the first time in her life. It was a pity that she was not enjoying it more.
The sobs died away to vast, miserable sighs and then to silence. People began cautiously to go back into the town. Some of them came timidly up to Sophie.
“Is something wrong with the poor Sorcerer, Mrs. Witch?”
“He’s a little unhappy today,” Michael said. “Come on. I think we can risk going back now.”
As they went along the stone quayside, several sailors called out anxiously from the moored ships, wanting to know if the noise meant storms or bad luck.
“Not at all,” Sophie called back. “It’s all over now.”
But it was not. They came back to the Wizard’s house, which was an ordinary crooked little building from the outside that Sophie would not have recognized if Michael had not been with her. Michael opened the shabby little door rather cautiously. Inside. Howl was still sitting on the stool. He sat in an attitude of utter despair. And he was covered all over in thick green slime.
There were horrendous, dramatic, violent quantities of green slime—oodles of it. It covered Howl completely. It draped his head and shoulders in sticky dollops, heaping on his knees and hands, trickling in glops down his legs, and dripping off the stool in sticky strands. It was in oozing ponds and crawling pools over most of the floor. Long fingers of it had crept into the hearth. It smelled vile.
“Save me!” Calcifer cried in a hoarse whisper. He was down to two desperately flickering small flames. “This stuff is going to put me out!”
Sophie held up her skirt and marched as near Howl as she could get—which was not very near. “Stop it!” she said. “Stop it at once! You are behaving just like a baby!”
Howl did not move or answer. His face stared from behind the slime, white and tragic and wide-eyed.
“What shall we do? Is he dead?” Michael asked, jittering beside the door.
Michael was a nice boy, Sophie thought, but a bit helpless in a crisis. “No, of course he isn’t,” she said. “And if it wasn’t for Calcifer, he could behave like a jellied eel all day for all I care! Open the bathroom door.”
While Michael was working his way between pools of slime to the bathroom, Sophie threw her apron into the hearth to stop more of the stuff getting near Calcifer and snatched up the shovel. She scooped up loads of ash and dumped them in the biggest pools of slime. It hissed violently. The room filled with steam and smelled worse than ever. Sophie furled up her sleeves, bent her back to get a good purchase on the Wizard’s slimy knees, and pushed Howl, stool and all, toward the bathroom. Her feet slipped and skidded in the slime, but of course the ooziness helped the stool to move too. Michael came and pulled at Howl’s slime-draped sleeves. Together, they trundled him into the bathroom. There, since Howl still refused to move, they shunted him into the shower stall.
“Hot water, Calcifer!” Sophie panted grimly. “Very hot.”
It took an hour to wash the slime off Howl. It took Michael another hour to persuade Howl to get off the stool and into dry clothes. Luckily, the gray-and-scarlet suit Sophie had just mended had been draped over the back of the chair, out of the way of the slime. The blue-and-silver suit was ruined. Sophie told Michael to put it in the bath to soak. Meanwhile, mumbling and grumbling, she fetched more hot water. She turned the doorknob green-down and swept all the slime out onto the moors. The castle left a trail like a snail in the heather, but it was an easy way to get rid of the slime. There were some advantages to living in a moving castle, Sophie thought as she washed the floor. She wondered if Howl’s noises had been coming from the castle too. In which case, she pitied the folk of Market Chipping.
By this time Sophie was tired and cross. She knew the green slime was Howl’s revenge on her, and she was not at all prepared to be sympathetic when Michael finally led Howl forth from the bathroom, clothed in gray and scarlet, and sat him tenderly in the chair by the hearth.
“That was plain stupid!” Calcifer sputtered. “Were you trying to get rid of the best part of your magic, or something?”
Howl took no notice. He just sat, looking tragic and shivering.
“I can’t get him to speak!” Michael whispered miserably.
“It’s just a tantrum,” Sophie said. Martha and Lettie were good at having tantrums too. She knew how to deal with those. On the other hand, it is quite a risk to spank a wizard for getting hysterical about his hair. Anyway, Sophie’s experience told her that tantrums are seldom about the thing they appear to be about. She made Calcifer move over so that she could balance a pan of milk on the logs. When it was warm, she thrust a mugful into Howl’s hands. “Drink it,” she said. “Now, what was a
ll this fuss about? Is it this young lady you keep going to see?”
Howl sipped the milk dolefully. “Yes,” he said. “I left her alone to see if that would make her remember me fondly, and it hasn’t. She wasn’t sure, even when I last saw her. Now she tells me there’s another fellow.”
He sounded so miserable that Sophie felt quite sorry for him. Now his hair was dry, she noticed guiltily, it really was almost pink.
“She’s the most beautiful girl there ever was in these parts,” Howl went on mournfully. “I love her so dearly, but she scorns my deep devotion and gets sorry for another fellow. How can she have another fellow after all this attention I’ve given her? They usually get rid of the other fellows as soon as I come along.”
Sophie’s sympathy shrank quite sharply. It occurred to her that if Howl could cover himself with green slime so easily, then he could just as easily turn his hair the proper color. “Then why don’t you feed the girl a love potion and get it over with?” she said.