PodCastle 642: In a Field of Bone-Bonnets
In a Field of Bone-Bonnets
The hut shuffled to face the sunrise, a habit that pleased its old witch, and kindled the fire in its hearth for her morning tea.
The witch groaned as she wobbled from her bed and picked up a ragged note from the floor. The scrap had been slipped under the hut’s door in the middle of the night while the witch had snored in her feather bed. During the note’s delivery, the hut had remained still because the witch had told it many years ago that her customers were scared enough already and might be frightened off if a giant chicken-footed hut suddenly moved.
The witch and the hut both knew what the note would say. The messages were always the same, even if the words were different.
“Another woman needs my help.” The witch wheezed as she reached for her bag of medicines.
The ever-glowing skulls strung by the hut’s doorway clattered. You need to rest.
“My dearest hut, I must continue with my work until I can no longer. Stoke your fires at dusk. That’s when I will return.”
As she reached for her walking stick, she gave the hut’s central beam a pat.
The hut watched with worry as she limped into the woods in search of the young woman who had written the note and crept to the hut’s door in the middle of the night.
As the sun arced across the sky, the hut rotated on its chicken feet to follow the warmth. It opened its shutters and aired its insides, then closed the shutters when the afternoon air grew hot and humid.
As the sun was setting, the old woman stumped back, her breathing labored. Fatigue lined her face, and she stepped inside unsteadily.
You are too old to keep doing this, the hut clattered.
“Helping others does not stop at any age.” The witch climbed into bed, drawing her quilt to her chin. “I know in my bones my end is near. You have served me well, with more care than I ever could have imagined. But you are a magicked thing, and you will need another witch’s power to remain alive. I have used the last of mine to grant you three days to find a new witch. After that, I can do no more, and the magic will drain away.”
The hut settled on its haunches. I cannot continue without you.
The witch touched the hut’s timbers. “Dearest friend, I hope that is not true.” She began drifting off, but mumbled softly, “To find her… the town holds a clue, but is no place for you. Wrong turn, you could burn. Red among bone finds your new home.”
The hut tended the fire to keep her warm and it rocked from foot to foot to soothe her pain.
By morning, the old witch was as still as stone.
The hut stood in the clearing. The old woman had always done the thinking for them.
The hut’s timbers groaned as it realized the old woman would no longer hobble across its wooden floors or demand it run through the woods so fast the birch trees lashed at its windows. The hut would do anything to feel her footfalls again. The emptiness swelled inside it.
It sought out the willow where the old woman liked to sit on hot evenings. It dug into the dirt, ignoring how its claws ached.
At last, it stepped back, studying the grave through its porthole windows. Satisfied, it tilted its frame until the old woman’s body slipped out of bed and into the grave.
It mounded dirt over the old woman, and covered the grave with scarlet wolf-teeth daisies and white bone-bonnets, her favorite blossoms. Shaking its beams, three skulls tumbled from its doorframe and landed among the flowers.
The skulls sang a eulogy in pale chromatics of unwanted endings.
The hut imagined sitting by her gravesite for three days, letting the magic drain away. Its windows would lose their shine and its feet would sink into the ground. With time, animals would take up residence.
Dearest friend, I hope that is not true. The memory of her witch’s voice echoed in its rafters.
The hut heaved itself upright on shaky legs. The hut wanted to honor her as best it could.
I’ll do what she wanted, it clattered.
The hut’s shutters creaked in sorrow as it said goodbye. The gravesite disappeared from view as it made its way toward the nearest town.
By afternoon, the hut was walking through wide boulevards, looking in the windows of fancy shops selling starched white frocks and tiny crystal figurines of creatures the hut had never seen. The old woman would have hated the town, the hut thought.
As the hut trundled through a smaller street, a man wearing a butcher’s apron leaned from his shop door.
“Is your witch inside?” His eyes darted toward the windows. “Come out, old lady!”
The hut backed up.
“No witch, eh?” Emboldened, the butcher jabbed an accusatory finger at its timbers. “My wife visited a year ago. She said she needed medicine. Only things that came back were a lock of her red hair and a bloody scrap of her skirt.”
The hut turned, confused. It remembered the red-haired woman. She was clever, asking the old witch about plants and medicines. She wore her hair in a thick braid twisted into a bun, and the freckles dotting her nose seemed to dance when she laughed.
“Now, I understand if that old witch got fed up with her. Irina could be mouthy. And always running off to the fields and hills. Probably getting up to no good. God knows even I lost my temper. What you did to her — she didn’t deserve it!”
The witch never ate women or girls. Only men who hurt them, the hut said in a severe tone.
The man’s mouth opened and closed. He trembled as he ran into his shop and bolted the door.
The remainder of the day was no better.
A grandmother smiled in passing at the hut but a gang of young men threw rocks. It recognized a few women. The witch had healed them and handled the men who came stalking after them. But under the eyes of town guards and offended proper citizens, none of the women would approach the hut.
Its timbers groaned as it walked out of the town.
The town holds a clue, but is no place for you, the old woman had said.
The hut felt more than its energy slipping. The first day hadn’t brought any help in finding a new witch, only lessons about how humans feared it and the old woman. The hut sighed through its eaves.
A shutter came loose and dropped onto the dusty road behind it.
On the second day, the hut felt weak enough to be worried men might bring it harm. Its joists ached, and it wondered if this was how the old woman had felt in her last days. At the outskirts of a village, it turned in at a little wooded glen and hid, waiting until dark to search for a new witch.
But a chicken-footed wooden cabin with glowing skulls hanging from its doorframe was never going to be well concealed. Especially at night.
An uneasiness came over the hut as it heard the village’s residents bang their shutters closed and lock their doors tight. It saw a line of flickering lights approach — the village watch with flaming torches, shouting and waving the fire at its wooden beams.
A spark jumped to its shingles, igniting a fire on the corner of its roof.
A wrong turn, you could burn. In searing pain, the hut fled through the woods until it reached a stream burbling through a gulley. It pitched itself into the gulch and dipped the corner of its roof into the muddy water, dousing the flames and cooling the shingles. If the old witch were alive, she would climb up on its roof and repair the ruined corner.
As the hut crouched in the gulley, its worries about guards and burned shingles gave way to a deeper ache that settled into its frame.
As much as the hut had provided a home for the witch, the witch had given the hut a sense of belonging and purpose. The magic, the hut understood, wound down far deeper than its own timbers.
On the third day, the hut decided to avoid people. Her witch had said the town holds a clue. But only the butcher had spoken to it, talking about his wife and accusing the hut and the witch of hurting her. The hut recalled that the butcher had mentioned the red-haired woman liked flowers.
The hut sighed with a memory of its witch’s love of flowers: delicately pretty wolf-teeth daisies, and healing white bone-bonnets. She used to sing, “Wolf teeth upon the heath, field of bonnets bone upon it.”
Perhaps, thought the hut, the red-haired woman would also pick bone-bonnets?
The hut plunged through fields and hillsides in search of the flowers, until its feet were blistering and the chimney mortar crumbled at its corners.
As the sun fell below the horizon, the hut caught sight of a meadow of white flowers nodding in the breeze. Bone-bonnets. Even if the hut were to lose its magic here, it was at ease with settling itself down in this field, allowing its timbers to become home to insects, birds and vines.
But in the midst of this field stood a red-haired woman, picking flowers. Irina. She looked up and waved.
The hut approached slowly, its chicken legs stiff and aching.
Your husband thinks we ate you, the hut said.
The woman laughed, her freckled nose crinkling. She had a loose-limbed ease about her, now that she was healed and free.
“Another of his lies. I sent him a piece of my skirt bloodied by my monthly, a lock of my hair, and a note saying bandits held me for ransom. Knew he wouldn’t pay. Been camped out ever since I left you, practicing old grandmother’s flower lore and helping those that find me,” she said. “How is she?”
The hut’s skulls tapped out an echo of the eulogy.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She stood silent for a moment and then rested a hand on the hut’s wooden beams. “I can feel her magic fading.” She looked up in concern. “You need another witch, I see.”
The hut leaned forward, its windows studying her closely. What had been faint when she visited the old witch was now a growing river of magic running through her veins.
She told me to find someone. The hut shifted on its feet, suddenly shy. She told me — The hut stopped, and started again. I know that my work is not yet done.
Irina placed a hand on the hut’s railing. “If you will have me, I would be honored to call you home. I hope with time I may prove a home for you just as you shall for me.”
When the red-haired woman stepped on its porch, its hearth flared with heat. She patted its doorframe, and the hut felt the weight of loneliness lifting.
The hut’s door swung open as its skulls blazed.
About the Author
Aimee Picchi’s short fiction has been published in Fireside Magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Flash Fiction Online, and Daily Science Fiction, among other publications. She’s a graduate of Viable Paradise and a former classical musician. She lives in Burlington, Vermont with her family. You can find her at @aimeepicchi.
About the Narrator
Jen R. Albert
Jen Albert is an editor, writer, and former entomologist. She works full-time as an editor at ECW Press, an independent publishing house based in Toronto, where she enjoys working on books of all kinds, including speculative fiction, popular science, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. She became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast in 2016; she now wonders if she still allowed to call it her favorite. Along with her co-editors, Jen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for her work on PodCastle.