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Story 4

 Peter Schranz

Peter Schranz's fiction has appeared on National Public Radio's Studio 360 and in Mirror Dance and Weirdbook magazines. He is the webmaster of and the host of the podcast Flight of the Fifty Fancies. He lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches children chess and collects corks.

Witch Puce is about the ensorcellment of strands of hair and the desorcellment of them. The story guarantees a restitution of decayed knowledge regarding rabbits. -- Peter Schranz

I couldn't have said it better myself. Witch Puce is the truly impressive story of a witch puce, three mirrors, the afore mentioned rabbits, and the Trichomancer who lives in the Land of the Laughing Wind.



Witch Puce

by Peter Schranz



The witch Puce came to the villages of Lum and Ces with three mirrors: one reflecting gazers as they appeared the moment they were born, one reflecting them as they appear the moment they look into the glass (this one wasn't the least bit enchanted), and one as they would appear at the moment of death.

     The king of Lum and Ces was a rabbit named Mohassem Wuck, and he lived in the palace called Sack And Sugar between the two villages. His queen was named Alemmalie, after a color only rabbits can see.

The witch Puce seemed to be a human with long coarse hair, all white but for a black strand sprouting straight from her scalp that could not be cut or wrenched out even by the most powerful strongman in the most bewildering sideshow. She carried the mirrors on her crooked back to Lum. Candles lit the village and rabbits came out to look at her.

     "Behold," she said to the little colony that greeted her. She raised the first, a full length mirror padlocked to a drawing easel. This mirror was called Aius Gaius after the emperor of the land of Aius, a two-year-old boy who neither had nor needed a regent.

     Puce raised the second, a mundane hand mirror with a long handle and a spike at the bottom that she pushed into the alemmalie grass. This mirror she called Oe, often misspelled 'Away.' Oe was the name of the daughter of Lillet, sister of Dode, Lady of the Blank House, who filled her empty wing with precious, uncharmed mirrors.

     The witch raised the third, surrounded by a wide and wrinkled frame, a triangular glass joined to a stool, so that gazers needed to gaze down at themselves at the last moments of their lives on this world. A rabbit would have to stand upon the mirror or knock the stool over. This mirror was named Underfact, after itself alone.

     "How many peas would you give me to see such things as you see?" The witch Puce asked, tugging at her black hair.

     "We would give you a hundred peas," said the rabbit Fraium Hydrack.

     "We would give you a thousand peas," said the twelve Hydrack children.

     "We would give you the great sultan's chessboard of peas if only you would let us gaze as we wish into these things," Fraium's husband Uwn said.

     Other rabbits gazed at themselves in Aius Gaius as cute little blind pink dots, and in Oe as furry and curious adults, and in Underfact as wizened and dignified senescents. No foxes lived around Lum or Ces, none at all.

     "I wish only for thirteen peas, with which I can finally produce witch-puce. My name is Puce and I am a witch, and if you give this prize to me in exchange for my glasses, I will be the first ever to make a dram of witch-puce, of my own invention and name."

     "Tell us about witch-puce, darling ape-lady," said Fraium as her husband raced to their pea-garden.

     "There is a trichomancer in the land of the Laughing Wind who cursed a single hair on my head," and here Puce picked up her long black hair, which dragged behind her. "Witch-puce, when poured onto the hair, separates the cursed hairs from the blessed. We all have cursed hairs, but this one I clench here in my hand is by far the worst. If you give me these peas, I will make enough witch-puce for myself and for every rabbit in Lum and Ces."

     "My husband will return presently with your peas," said Fraium. Her fur was mostly blessed, but one or two on her right ear left something to be desired. "My lord and lady Mohassem and Alemmalie Wuck will be happy to know of your presence here."

     Fraium, Uwn, Puce and the peas left Lum for Sack And Sugar, meeting the guards at its soft, pink gates. "Business?" they said together.

     "I wish to speak of witch-puce to your king and queen," said the witch, and nothing more was required.

     Sack And Sugar was pink at the bottom and each story was just that much redder. Rabbits do not distinguish between pink and red. Pink they call ileary, and red, dark ileary.

The halls were adorned with endless portraits of the multiplicative Wuck dynasty at play and at work. The throne upon which the two rabbits lunched was spun from only such vegetables as make the finer thrones: wicker and reed and carrot greens, cured by those secret lapine methods.

     "I see no reason to allow the witch Puce to suffer from her curse," said Mohassem Wuck. "No reason at all."

"We shall take your frightening mirrors, madam," said Alemmalie, "And you shall have our peas. Would you like our laboratory to produce your puce?"

"You people are too kind to a poor old nothing," said the witch.

Witch-puce is not all too difficult to make: other than the thirteen peas, one needs only bark from a hanging tree, just enough pearl dust to fit inside a lock, and a rabbit's tooth. Most of these things Puce had already, and procuring the rabbit's tooth was not exactly a hump. The laboratory at Sack and Sugar was pink-walled and triangular and deep within the mansion, this so that no windows would be grubbed up by smoke or other, stranger vapors that might like to get all over the glass.

"How long will it be, exactly?" Uwn Hydrack asked Puce. He rubbed his nose with his little paw.

"An hour a pea," said Puce. "You know I think the king and queen might like, one day, to have a soak in the witch-puce. You too might stand to do well from a dip."

Into the alembic she dropped the peas and the tooth. She hung the hanging tree bark over the alembic and they watched the pea-and-tooth gasses waft around.

Fraium and Uwn sang little songs to each other in whatever language it was that the rabbits of Lum liked to speak, and in thirteen hours the witch-puce had been formed and poured steaming into a quartz flask. The rabbits had assumed in darling naïveté that the liquor would be puce-colored, but the witch had simply named it after herself and nothing more. It was sort of a foul gray color if anything, especially after the soggy bark had dropped into the depths of its soup.

"Disgusting," said Fraium.

"Back off," said Puce, raising the potion to her head. "I shall give it a whirl." A drop fell from the flask and touched her scalp, whereupon the long cursed black hair fell from her head. Puce smiled and held the flask to her breast with one hand, surveying her head with the other hand. The curse left her head, certainly, but it did not leave the hair, which, before any but the meagerest celebration occurred, took root in the laboratory floor. It swung around and whipped at the pink walls and grew thicker. It whipped the walls so hard that the wool with which Sack and Sugar was insulated pushed forth from the tears. Puce, Fraium, and Uwn escaped the laboratory and heaved closed the door. Puce would have had to duck had the dropping off of the trichomancer's hair not returned the witch to her birth-form, that of a lithe black rabbit.

The hair seemed to quiet into a stupor once nothing to kill remained in the laboratory. They made quick audience with the Wucks.

"And you say you've finished the witch-puce?" Mohassem asked.

"Why, yes," said the witch, troubled by the king's indifference. "But it is still inside of the laboratory."

Thus "Good God!" he said, "We must go at once!"

"The trichomancer's curse will whip anyone who enters," said Fraium. "Puce lives now only because she'd grown short enough to evade the whippings of the curse."

"Ah, yes," said Mohassem. "I thought you looked different, good Puce."

"Do you know of any charms or baubles that could tamp down this hair?" Alemmalie asked.

"Yes, let's shamp this cowlick, 'Lem," her husband cheered indecorously.

"I know of one," said the witch. "Will the King and Queen be so handsome as to allow the use of my witch-puce upon their coats? Truly and without offense, at least a single hair upon your bodies must be cursed, as you have a great many."

"Won't their hairs take root and whip as well?" Fraium wiggled her nose at Puce.

"Don't be silly. The trichomancer only cursed one rabbit hair that I'm aware of," the witch answered. "Right? King and Queen, have you ever met a trichomancer? No? No. Good."

"Your purpose is grand," said King Mohassem. "Apply it however you'd like."

Puce produced the quartz flask of the potion and hopped to the vegetable throne. Out she poured the liquor onto the king and queen, who shared it. Puce mumbled these magic words as the potion poured forth: "Umbullah billah, balillah billah bullah," which Puce knew meant The father and his son are bad, but the father's worse. What that meant she felt--rather presciently--that she'd be better off not knowing.

From the bodies of the Wucks dropped seventeen silver hairs that wiggled away like worms.

"What on earth will happen to them?" asked Alemmalie as she squirmed from the hairs.

"Have you heard the grammatical hex that the negation of a negative statement possesses the same meaning as the affirmation of an affirmative statement?" Puce asked. She did not hold out great sacks of hope that they would, but she was polite in all the forms she took.

"Indeed, I have," said Mohassem.

"Nor have I been denied such knowledge," said Alemmalie. Puce thought privately that they both were being rather too wry for rabbits whose palace was cursed.

"This same hex applies in mathematics and maledictology," she said. "Come watch, if you wish."

Fraium and Uwn were far too frightened themselves to see, and so they returned to Lum, where their children entered this report at a certain juncture that patience will reveal. The seventeen hairs of the Wucks had not gone far, being sightless entities, and so Puce collected them in an ampoule and made for the laboratory.

The Trichomancer's Whip, as it came to be called by those future rabbits in whose conversations it came up, sensed the presence of Puce, Mohassem, and Alemmalie and began to flog the laboratory walls. Puce cracked the door and nosed the ampoule into the laboratory, where the hair smashed its thin glass and released the seventeen other cursed hairs. They clung to it and burned into it. Soon the great black hair's whipping ceased and a thin, smoking carcass remained in the laboratory.

"What would we do without you grammarians, mathematicians and maledictologists?" Alemmalie said, shaking her little head.

"You perhaps might be defenseless against the trichomancer. The people of Lum and Ces have been terrifically helpful, but my quest has only begun: for who, in the body of a bony old ape with a long and horrendous hair, could free reality from such a foe?"

"Puce," said Mohassem Wuck, "This night we have a dance to attend, and the rabbits do many dances: the Cup of the King, for example."

"And the Hasty Guess," added the queen.

"Nor to forget the Hop. That is to say, we understand your need to send away the trichomancer, but no rabbit can go for long without frolic and live. Remember you this, Puce."

"But the fastness of the trichomancer is guarded by a thousand woolly lions."

"And you believe that this knowledge will encourage us to assist you?" said Mohassem. "I cannot speak for my wife, but the very sentence that you last uttered makes me want to leap into a bush."

"I cannot speak for my husband, but what can a small kingdom of rabbits do to a thousand woolly lions?"

The cursed hair suffered a death-twitch and the three of them, wary at the thoughts Puce had filled them with, made back to the room of the vegetable throne, on which Mohassem and Alemmalie sat.

"We the rabbits of Lum and Ces thank you for your mirrors and for your loosing of our cursed hairs," Mohassem decreed, "And we find that the services you have rendered are all we require at this time."

Two flop-eared rabbits with nails on their helmets escorted Puce to the soft, pink gates of Sack and Sugar.

The witch Puce, now with neither mirror nor curse, looked far across the grass in the direction of that laughing wind, where she had been only once. She wandered to Lum, where twelve familiar kit rabbits were daring each other to look into Underfact, hopping up on the stool, squeaking, hopping down again, and laughing in the way kit rabbits laugh at death.

"Good witch Puce," one of them called. "How came you by this fearsome glass?"

"I sneaked it from the hoard of the trichomancer in the land of the Laughing Wind. Your king and queen wish rather to unbosom their sorrow about his one thousand woolly lions by dancing the Hasty Guess tonight. Are you of that sort?"

"This trichomancer you speak of is both a castcurse and a havehoard: if you mean to send him on his way, you'll find no better twelve than the Hydrack siblings."

Puce remembered all of their names, but there is no use recording them here. They said goodbye to Fraium and Uwn, who could not stop them from going, but felt that Puce had not exactly overstayed her welcome as much as underkept her distance.

Between the villages of Lum and Ces and the land of the Laughing Wind rough dirt and thoughtless gravel engaged the feet. The witch Puce, with the hair of her curse trailing behind her, had approached Lum and Ces from this direction, but in the body of a human ape her clamberings had been as dexterous as they were long-legged.

"We cannot, all alone, make for the fastness of the trichomancer," said one of the Hydracks. "Sand encrusts my feet."

"I hop and hop and find no foothold worth memorizing," said another.

"Puce, we trusted you," said a third.

"Be silent," she commanded, and the sound of her voice was like the script in a grimoire. "You act as though I, the witch Puce, am just as doomed as the twelve of you. Perhaps I am bedeviled, but things can be done, and they can be done by me."

"One thousand wooly lions bar our way, and all we speak of are the puffs on our feet," a Hydrack complained. "We'll be torn to shreds. No, we'll be torn to piles of elements."

"Pluck out thirteen of your hairs," Puce shouted. "For I have a plaid potion in my satchel requiring them."

The Hydracks plucked from their ears and their haunches thirteen pointy white hairs. "What in the world is a plaid potion?" one of them asked, though they all wanted to know.

"Nothing, really," said Puce, taking from her satchel a phial so tiny that surface tension hugged the liquid inside to its walls. "A drop of water steeped in pearl dust. To drink it causes nothing but a stomach ache, but with thirteen hairs inside," she dipped one at a time into the phial until all thirteen bloomed out like fletching, "why, perhaps it is still best not to drink it, but," she continued, tapping the stubborn liquor from the phial, "It paves a fine road."

The potion finally fell to the rocky ground and before them as far as their low little eyes could see, a narrow length of the gravel rose and sunk and churned as though the gnomes below were jumping and hitting their heads. Soon the sharp chunks of gravel, somehow being taught by the drop in the phial to understand certain spatial facts, had synchronized themselves into a reasonably smooth, cobbly road along which the thirteen rabbits hopped amiably. Though on each side of the road rough foot-souring pointinesses threatened them, the road was soft and friendly.

Before long they felt a halting wind blow by their faces and whistle along the red dirt.

"Now before us lies the land of the Laughing Wind and the hoard of the Trichomancer," said Puce.

From the horizon grew a long, bitter gate of countless pointy black posts. The rabbits retreated a few steps and the Hydracks called fearfully to each other for comfort as the gate swept past them, asking the witch what she had brought them all while the wind chuckled around them.

"The one thousand wooly lions of the trichomancer cannot be kept in a narrow cage," she said, "and so the cage cannot have a narrow gate." The gate was swinging away now, back over the horizon.

"I have never seen a gate without hinges," said one of Puce's fearful companions.

"You will see its hinges soon enough, when we approach the fastness."

"Why would the trichomancer not opt for a gate that rises rather than opens like a door?" asked another Hydrack. "For this one seems impossibly too wide."

"I said be silent," Puce answered.

They danced fearfully down the ensorcelled road to the Trichomancer's eternity-long fastness whose name was Vinegar Tom, at whose foundation stood the cage of the thousand wooly lions, the cage whose gate had just swept open.

The wooly lions did what any reasonable member of their race would do at the vision of thirteen uneaten rabbits and charged. All one thousand advanced at once from the cage below the floorboards of Vinegar Tom, and the rabbits knew this because it takes very little time and effort to count with total accuracy the number of wooly lions who approach you with their uvulas showing. The lions barreled over the gravel as easily as over the road, all kicking dust up at once and fully obscuring the fastness of the trichomancer.

For most of us it is very difficult to imagine how thirteen rabbits could all escape the uvulas of one thousand wooly lions, and to be perfectly fair, of the thirteen times in recorded history that those exact circumstances occurred, it was only this present report that did not end in utter rabbit death, which fact is precisely why this report is worth reporting while the other twelve are not.

The witch Puce, when the closest of the lions reached tossing-distance, aimed a phial of witch-puce true at its fur-clotted forehead, over which in no time it broke.

It cannot possibly come as much surprise that every strand of the trichomancer's wooly lion's hair was cursed, and as Puce's liquid shears dropped, and as the magic words raced from her mouth, all the animal's wool fell into a writhing, evil pile. It stopped in its naked tracks and turned back at the other lions, who themselves grew rather distracted by the little pink cat.

"Into what has the witch made our vanguard?" asked the still-wooly lions.

"She has thrown the wool from my eyes," answered the hairless, winking lion of the dripping forehead. He nodded vigorously and threw just the tiniest witch-puce mists onto other lions, whose wool dropped away from them like burning flesh from an unpersuasive heretic. They, cognizing for the first time with their own minds and not the trichomancer's, saw the wisdom in throwing their share of the witch-puce farther out into the gargantuan hurricane of lions of which Puce and the Hydracks had become the eye.

In this way the mere drop of witch-puce ended up on all the wooly lions--for after all far more than one thousand molecules compose a drop of that substance--until the rabbits had surrounded themselves with one thousand dying piles of wool and as many new, naked, embryoid lions. They, despite their carnivorism, had no interest in the meat of the rabbits as much as that of the trichomancer, who for so long had deceived their bodies and minds.

"I imagine our goals have blent," Puce declared to the lions who could hear her.

"The witch says she imagines our goals have blent," said the lions who could hear Puce to those who could not.

The dust from their charge finally settled, and at the highest window of the highest and thinnest and most capillaceous of Vinegar Tom's numberless towers, the shadow of the trichomancer moved in menace and disquiet. Puce knew to whom the shadow belonged, for it had once been cast over her.

The Hydracks, for all the courage they promised Puce, could watch only in a very specific, dumb daze as the converted lions turned on their tails to find the food of which the trichomancer was composed. The daze was the only of its kind in history, considering the very much less two-sided conclusions to the twelve other episodes during which one thousand wooly lions advanced hungrily upon thirteen rabbits.

The lions sunk their claws into the soft walls of Vinegar Tom, climbed its battlements, leaped over its crenellations, tore themselves apart scaling the highest bulwarks and towers of the fastness to please themselves on the trichomancer. Behind Puce and the Hydracks, who watched in either daze or unassailable serenity, paraded many rabbits of Lum and Ces. Mohassem and Alemmalie marched at the vanguard, he carrying the mirror Oe of Lady Dode of the Blank House, she carrying on its side the mirror Underfact, of itself. Aius Gaius had shattered on the way, regrettably.

All the rabbits cheered madly as they gazed backwards, away from Vinegar Tom and into the mirrors Oe and Underfact. Had they known of the curse whose magic words the cornered, panicking trichomancer had already begun to mumble, and had they not been rabbits--who remember why they laughed as kits at death--they might have found retreat wiser than cheer.

Oe revealed to them all what they looked like at the moment of their gazing into it and it revealed to them what the trichomancer looked like up in his tower (for Oe was not the least bit enchanted). As a horde of the lions managed finally to claw their way into that highest window of that highest tower, the rabbits gazed into Underfact, which revealed to them what they would look like at the moment of their deaths, and what the trichomancer would look like at the moment of his. His final curse erupted from Vinegar Tom, and a dome of tentacular lightning-bolt hair whipped from the throat of Vinegar Tom and swallowed every last being who could see the fastness at all. For just a moment the two mirrors cast identical reflections.

The End


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