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THE WITCH AND THE FISHMONGER'S WIFE
"You seem to be the only person I ever run into at this infant hour, Mrs. Elias," Mrs. Risk murmured, not disguising the sharp edge of her opinion of that fact. "Except your husband, of course." She examined the young woman standing two stories above her through eyes that only appeared sleepy and slowly added, "And the milkman."
The draperies of Mrs. Risk's garments lifted in a sudden breeze. Her dark figure appeared doom-laden on the pale boardwalk already shimmering with heat.
The woman up on the flat roof of her house looked sourly down upon her fellow villager. The same breeze that had disturbed Mrs. Risk's clothing was the breeze the young woman had come to her roof seeking this morning, hoping to catch it for a few blissful minutes before descending into the heat and work of the day. The wind stroked one strap of her tattered nightgown from her shoulder, and she left it hanging. With a raw hand, she pushed back from her face a mass of black hair marred with dull patches. As soon as she took her hand away the heavy hair fell back to where it had formerly hung. It was as if all the world held contempt for this woman this morning, including her own hair.
She perched her hands on her hips and arched her ripe body up towards the sun as if her back ached, as well it might. The milkman had just dashed from her back door seconds before the witch had arrived.
"Well, Ike has to get up early, no help for that," she merely said. Her expression was a dam behind which lurked many other things she preferred to say and the witch knew it.
Mrs. Elias' husband was one of the village's hardest workers, daily leaving his house before dawn to bargain with the fishermen for their catch as their boats first touched shore.
The sun moved higher, and the witch turned to keep from squinting, positioning herself for a clearer view of the woman on top of the house. Her mouth twitched into a semblance of a smile. "More credit to you for getting up with him, my dear. A devoted wife ..."
"He likes a hot breakfast," she said dismissively. She turned her head towards the open sea and lifted a hand to shield her eyes. The young woman sighed when she glanced down again and found the witch still there.
"Your roses, they're doing well," the witch said.
"Well, thanks to your gardening advice," said the younger woman. She stirred restlessly in the growing heat.
The older woman's shoulder could be seen to shrug beneath the several folds of black gauze she liked to wear in public, however hot the day. Nobody knew if the material made up a robe, a dress, or was merely several yards of stuff wound around her tall, gaunt body. Nobody had the nerve to ask.
"You didn't need it. You seem to have acquired a touch for growing things. Your garden thrives, even now when everyone else abandons all effort in this heat. And I see you've added some things. Henbane? How enterprising. Did you know the hellebores you have there were used in old times to counteract witchcraft?"
The witch gave Mrs. Elias a slow smile before resuming her inventory. "And lily-of-the-valley, I see ... Monkshood and the Christmas Rose ... you're attempting something not quite the usual. You'll give these lazy cottagers something to strive for." She eyed the younger woman with an interest that disconcerted Mrs. Elias.
"I put some foxglove for height against that wall, where the roses had been before you advised me to move them more into the sun." Mrs. Elias wafted a lethargic hand at the narrow garden below. "I couldn't do those herbs and things you suggested, though. You know, to attract ladybugs to eat the aphids and the other pests? My husband complained that doing it that way was too time consuming. So I have to kill the bugs with the canned stuff."
The witch sighed, for she loved the natural ways of doing things. "That's a shame. But it's understandable."
The fishmonger's house was a two story box, with the living quarters arranged above the fishmarket, which took up all of the first story of the building. The garden made a bright barrier between the market and the boardwalk built above the burning sand. No tall trees shaded the miniature rooms on the top floor, and so they were uninhabitable during the day. Only the market at street level had an air conditioner and fans and wide shaded windows. It was as if the fish had to be comfortable, but the people had been given no consideration.
"Yes, roses grow bored with too much tender handling. They become lazy and begin to lose interest in blooming." Mrs. Risk watched the heavy blossoms thoughtfully. "When they have to struggle a bit, it's good for their character ... as you see." She considered the young woman, who didn't look like her own struggles had benefited her in any way.
"I just ... early mornings don't agree with me, I guess," Mrs. Elias said, as if reading Mrs. Risk's mind.
"No. You're lovely. No wonder your husband keeps you so tenderly beside him all day in his fishmarket. And how is Ike? His blood pressure behaving itself?"
"The heat is hard on him. I watch carefully to make sure he takes every drop of his medicine. He doesn't like to take it, you know." She made a wry face that only emphasized how delicate and pure her features actually were. "You know how men can get dumb about not doing what they're supposed to. Like it's an insult to their manhood to take care of themselves." She made a wifely click with her tongue.
The witch reached down and stroked the head of her cat which had suddenly thrust open the lid of the basket on her mistress's arm. She was accustomed to ride within, swaying breezily along the boardwalk and peering through the holes in the wicker sides. She yowled in complaint at the long pause in the morning's entertainment, then huffily withdrew.
"Jezebel adores your husband. They share lunch every day in your shop. He gives her lovely pieces of salmon and bluefish, sometimes shark." The witch chuckled softly down at her pet. "She would be devastated if anything happened to your husband ... if, say, he would carelessly forget his medicine or some such," she glanced piercingly at the strange garden, then up at the watching wife. She lifted a bony shoulder in a shrug, then turned to resume her walk. The younger woman's body sagged in relief and she began to reenter her house. Suddenly the witch stopped and swerved around on her heel.
"Mrs. Elias." Without raising her voice, the element of command was so strong that Mrs. Elias heard her clearly and hastened to pay attention.
"Does your husband like yogurt?"
"I noticed you two seem to consume a great many dairy products for a childless couple," Mrs. Risk said, dryly.
Mrs. Elias stiffened.
"I feel impelled to repay in a small way the generosity you and your husband display toward my pet. Jezebel has become quite pampered with his attentions and I adore my Jezebel." She touched the small basket hanging from her lean arm briefly, but the object of her affection remained hidden and silent. "A yogurt pie, perhaps. A sweet dessert, but still healthy. Good for Ike and good for his waistline, too. I've noticed it isn't getting any smaller," she said in a dry tone. "Yes, or—." She laid a finger to her lips. "I shall think on it."
"No, please, don't both—"
But it was too late. The witch had continued her poised stroll down the exact center of the boardwalk and was now gone. After a puzzled moment, Mrs. Elias turned away and faded back inside like the shadows before the morning sun.
Later that same day, the witch appeared again before Mrs. Elias, this time in the shop, late in the morning, when business was hectic. Mr. Elias sold not only fresh fish, but also deli salads and cooked fish dishes to the locals and the tourist trade. A huge cooler inside the door kept bottled and canned drinks icy. Ike's Fishmarket was a popular place around noon.
The bustle in the small market became dampened somewhat by Mrs. Risk's appearance. After she slipped inside the door of the refreshingly cool room, she stood watching for a while, a pleasant smile on her face. After the first nervous moments, however, people resumed shouting their orders to Ike and reaching across each other to grab napkins and other items.
Mrs. Elias appeared wan and tired, but that was to be expected with the hours she kept. Often she would disappear into the back of the market to reappear soon after with new salads to replenish the depleted bowls in the display case, or new buckets of ice. The customers soon learned to ignore the witch, merely nodding politely as they moved about or went out. Jezebel patrolled the floor in front of the fish cases, yowling with relish at the delicious odors, anticipating her treat at Ike's hands when the crowds slackened.
As two o'clock approached, Ike gave a great sigh, wiped his ham sized fists on a clean paper towel and brought out a large covered plastic container from the cooler behind him. This he handed to his wife, who appeared not to want it, but he insisted, kissing her on the forehead. "Yes, you're getting too thin. You waste away before my eyes and I want you healthy and strong." He patted her behind to hasten her away to the back room of the market. With a sigh she yielded and as she went he added, "To please your Ike, okay, Sweetheart? Just for me, eat it all."
Wiping his hands again, he turned, beaming, to confront Jezebel. Lifting three small silvery fish from the ice, he laid them on a china plate with a flourish possibly inspired by the witch's close scrutiny. "Sweet and fresh, just for you," he remarked. Jezebel greedily pounced, then began nipping at the fish with finesse. Glancing at Mrs. Risk, Ike grinned. "She loves me only for my fish. If I stopped giving them to her, she'd never visit again and would break my heart without a second thought."
The witch began a leisurely approach to the counter. "That was very touching, just now."
"What, feeding the cat?"
"Feeding your wife. What was it? Is she ill and is it medicine?"
The fishmonger waved away such suggestions. "No, no. She's just so pale these days, with the heat. I fix her lunch every day, just like she fixes my breakfast. It's only fish and pasta, with chopped potatoes, peppers, and vegetables. Things that're good for her. She's not as strong as me, and it's a lot of work, running this business every day, even with help. I take care of my wife."
"She's always seemed quite robust to me."
"It's just the heat, just the heat." Ike pulled his apron from around his immense middle, and with the clean side of it wiped his face, which was red from exertion and sweaty despite the extreme coolness of the air in the shop. "Affects me, too. I try to keep her from working so hard, but she won't listen."
"I noticed how she tries to wait on customers, but you won't let her ... "
Ike shrugged. "The men're rude, half of 'em. I won't have them talking to my wife that way."
Mrs. Risk's eyebrows rose. "Asking for fish?"
"Yeah. They don't have any manners, those guys. Grinning at her. And the women are worse, they don't know what they want, most the time. Keep her waiting while they 'think'. She's got better things to do." He threw up his hands in disgust.
"And for the last month, instead of resting in the evening, she spends her time fiddling with those flowers in the yard. You'd think her whole future was invested in those things, instead of keeping herself for me and the work at the market, here. The way she slaves over 'em, digging and poking and—" He reached behind him, brought out a pail of fish guts. "She even buries this stuff under them, can you beat that?"
Mrs. Risk smiled. "I told her it was good for them. Makes this sandy barren soil better, Ike. Let her play with her flowers if it gives her pleasure."
Ike shrugged, then smiled. "What can I have the pleasure of getting for you today?"
"Nothing, my dear man. I just wanted to repeat what I told your lovely wife this morning, how grateful I am for the kindness you show my greedy pet. She's pampered beyond belief by you every single day. And I intend to show you my thanks by bringing you something—"
Ike held out a broad palm. "Not necessary." He ducked his head and grinned brightly. "Don't bother yourself, we enjoy Jezebel, just as we enjoy you comin' in to the shop now and then. In fact," he reached into a glass case and pulled out a fish fillet as big as a dinner plate. "You take this and have some nice fish for dinner tonight, on us. Our pleasure."
Mrs. Risk waited while he wrapped the fillet in white paper and tied it with string, then took it from him and tucked it tidily into her basket. "You're a generous soul, Ike Elias. Many thanks. Well, I must be going. I should rush this fish home as fast as possible, it must be a hundred and one outside." She smiled archly at Ike. "I wouldn't want it to spoil."
He held the shop door open for her and she bustled away, leaving the fickle-hearted Jezebel still at her lunch inside, with Ike.
As she rounded the corner of the market, however, after a swift glance at the baking beach and boardwalk, she stepped off the boardwalk to a concrete path that ran behind the market. After peering through two small windows, she found what she was after—the sight of Mrs. Elias, perspiring heavily and stabbing with a fork into the large plastic container of Ike's hand-prepared lunch, which she held balanced on her knee.
As the witch watched, she drank deeply from a large glass of iced liquid and sighed. She was sitting on a plywood crate as close to the window as possible as if to pick up the slightest breath of air that might stray into the dark room from outside.
Mrs. Risk pecked at the screen with a long forefinger. Mrs. Elias jumped. "Yes?"
"Dear, aren't you terribly hot in there? Why don't you eat out front, where the air conditioning is?"
Mrs. Elias' mouth twisted wryly. "Because it's not good business to eat in front of the customers."
Mrs. Elias just shrugged.
"Ah, yes. Well, at the very least, don't eat that stuff if you don't want it. It can't be settling on your poor stomach very well in the heat."
"I, uh, ... I have to eat it. Ike gets very angry ..." She cast a worried look into the gloom in the direction of the shop.
"What, does he check?"
She shrugged a shoulder, but nodded. Mrs. Risk looked her over for a few moments, took in her pale drawn face, her bowed shoulders, and the deep circles beneath the large black eyes that used to flame and sparkle with temper. She had to remind herself of Mrs. Elias' age ... or lack of it.
"Look. I'm still going to bring your darling husband something to show my gratitude; but for you, my gift to you is to take something away. Let me have that." With a swift motion, she pushed aside the screen on its hinge and before Mrs. Elias could react, the entire contents of the box were dumped into Mrs. Risk's basket. "There." She handed the empty plastic box back to the stunned Mrs. Elias.
"Men can be incredibly impractical at times," Mrs. Risk announced. "Now, don't say anything to him about it. He means well and we must consider his feelings. Agreed?"
Mrs. Elias nodded, too stunned to speak. Her eyes were enormous, and glistened almost feverishly.
Mrs. Risk looked her over, then said, "You receive your lunch from him every day around now?"
Mrs. Elias nodded.
"And he always inspects to make sure you finished it all?"
Mrs. Elias nodded again, still speechless.
"I'll be here every day at this time. You wait for me if I'm late. Don't eat this heavy mess until the heat wears off the summer, and I'm betting you'll feel excellent for it."
Mrs. Elias started to say something, but Mrs. Risk held up her hand and said, "Hup! Never mind. See you here tomorrow. Not a word to Ike, remember."
For a week this continued, Mrs. Elias meekly handing over the contents of her large plastic container and Mrs. Risk depositing it inelegantly into her basket, the whole process taking seconds. Mrs. Risk would return to the boardwalk and continue on her way before anyone had a chance to notice that she'd been standing at the back window of the fish market.
And daily, in the early hours, Mrs. Risk would glance up at the roof of the fishmonger's house to observe the color gradually returning to Mrs. Elias' cheeks, and a lessening of the circles beneath her eyes. Always, before passing on, Mrs. Risk would inquire pointedly about Ike's blood pressure and how well he was taking his medicine.
One day, as Mrs. Risk disposed of Ike's well-intentioned lunch for his wife, Mrs. Elias, after hesitating for a moment, leaned close to the screen and whispered faintly, "I feel I owe you ... Ike feeds your cat only because when you come into the shop, it impresses the other villagers and brings him business. It isn't ... it isn't ... "
"It isn't because he just loves cats? I know, dear. But don't you think your loyalty should be to your husband? Like these horrendous lunches, he means well. I know it's difficult to be a wife, dear."
Excerpted from Tales of the Witch by Angela Zeman. Copyright © 2012 Angela Zeman. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 3, 2012
Sorta entertaining; author seems to be trying for a Miss Marple-esque character, but could have used a good editor to provide character continuity. Is Mrs Risk a gaunt, scary character or a sophisticated wine/food gourmand with an inquiring mind? Beloved by the community or a terrifying mystery? Finished the book and I'm still not sure. Author could be on to something here but as a collection of stories, they don't feel pulled together. I got it as a free book offering; not sure I'd be pleased if I'd paid $8.49 for it....Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.