A Cookpot,
a Knife,
a Pile of Rag

by Virginia M. Mohlere • art by Kelsey Wroten

She can’t stand the taste of apples. It’s the flavor of waking up from a nightmare, the flavor she chokes on in the dark. Can’t stand the smell of them, not even the sight.

She can’t stand clothing that presses tight against her body. She can’t stand the pull of a comb through her hair.

(She crops her hair short. “It doesn’t suit you,” he says [they all say]. If she could stand to look in mirrors, she would glare into one and chant—shut up shut up shut up.)

She can’t stand the touch of a hand on her chin. Never could stand it, even as a young girl, constantly assessed, scrutinized.

She would vastly prefer not to be touched at all. Not grabbed by the chin and glared at. Not pulled by the arm, the knife making a little cut under her collarbone before she’s shoved hard to the ground. Not kissed. Not jostled so that the apple comes out of her mouth and she’s choking, choking, with the scent of apple all around her and a stranger’s face too close.

She doesn’t even like glass. Mirrors hold danger, and glass holds death. The palace bristles with the kind of reminders that make her wake shrieking in the middle of the night.

"Shh," he says, and puts his hands on her.

It doesn't matter that he means well. It doesn't matter that his hands are gentle.

She spent months silent in a glass box. She doesn't want to shh.

It doesn't matter that he means well. It doesn't matter that his hands are gentle.

She goes to the little house in the forest, where she had her first taste of happiness, and finds that a second serving is not available.

“You can’t stay here,” the eldest of the little men tells her, and her stomach drops into her feet.

“Snow. You know we would like nothing better. But they would find you here. He would find you.”

The youngest of them dares to stand close, to put his small hand on her forearm, and she doesn’t mind it so much. It’s a touch meant to give, not to take.

“Is it really so bad?” the youngest asks.

Thirteen eyes, dark as fertile soil, stare at her. Hands flex and stretch, knowing that even if she said the worst, they’d never get close enough to avenge her. They'd die trying, though. And where would that leave her?

“It’s not his fault,” she says. “He—tries. But he thinks safety is like a candle that can be lit within the space of a breath.”

He can’t understand, that man she’s supposed to call husband. That stranger, who knows peril as a thing to be sought out and followed up by a hot meal and a warm bed. Who means it as a compliment when he calls her “my beauty, my prize.”

Who can’t believe that anyone could be so frightened by hands. By glass. By apples.

“I will keep you safe,” he says.

As if anything can be both safe and kept.

But the little men almost know. Strong as they are, with iron-hard skin over muscles like the rocks they break, they remain small men in a world where the large are kings. One of the middle ones walks with a limp, thanks to an inattentive horse. They go to market in threes, ever since one of them fell afoul of a group of drunks—that one is missing most of his teeth on the right side of his jaw.

“I will keep you safe,” he says.
As if anything can be both safe and kept.

“We’ll pack you a bag,” the eldest says, and seven heads nod. “Better not to tell us where you’re going. Just in case.”

“Will you ever come back?” the youngest asks.

“I don’t know,” she says.

“Smart idea, with the hair,” the half-toothless one slurps at her. “Easier while you’re on the road. But you’ll get cold faster. Take this.”

He gives her the hat from his own head: once red but now muddy and pilled, with a patch knitted in dark green. There’s a twig stuck in the side, and it smells of him, of the peat fire, and of dirt.

It’s the best gift she ever got; she puts it on straightaway.

They take her fine clothes away from her and dress her in their own: boots with felt liners, trousers and smock, a sheepskin coat, an oilskin cape. They wrap food, a tinderbox, and their third-best cooking pot in an old blanket and show her how to tie it onto her back. They leave her the fur-lined gloves she brought with her.

They hand her a knife.

“I don’t want that,” she says, her thumb reaching to the little scar above her breast, under the reeking coat.

“You’ll take it,” the oldest of them says, sounding as gruff as she’s ever heard him. “You’ll take it, and when you need to, you’ll use it.”

She takes it. She goes: away, out. Gone.

And how many times does she curse herself for leaving the first month, the second? Uncountable. To leave the palace and its roof, its fireplaces, in autumn. How bitterly she weeps, the first morning she wakes to find her blanket pale and stiff with frost.

Yet. Yet. She stares at her wavering reflection in cold streams without dread. Clear as glass but flowing, alive. Nothing that will cage her, or hold her static. A swift doorway to ending, if she needs it. But not yet. For now, it’s enough to look, to feel the current dragging at her chilled hands. She saws off the new tufts of hair with the little men's knife and gives them to the stream.

At the first snowstorm, she finds a low cave under the corpse of a tree wider than she is tall and climbs into it, whispering prayers of gratitude, until she realizes that the cave is occupied. It’s not the first sleepless night she has spent on the road, but it’s the worst one, wedged just out of the blowing flakes, shuddering with terror that the bear will wake. (It doesn’t.)

The land rises, and she climbs deeper into winter. The gloves keep her fingers from turning black, and the boots protect her toes, but the bundle on her back is too light to last until spring.

She stares at her wavering reflection in cold streams without dread. Clear as glass but flowing, alive. Nothing that will cage her, or hold her static.

She wants to go on. So she does.

When she left the palace, desperate for silence and air, aching to be let alone, the thought of lying down in snow and never getting up was welcome. But she has walked for a season under green, gold, and orange. She has mastered the tinderbox and sharpened the knife. She has gathered walnuts and gutted fish. Let herself twice sing, for no other reason than her own pleasure and that of the listening birds.

She wants to go on. So she does.

She climbs the rocky path, and the piling snow keeps her from sliding, though she feels it push against her, weigh her down. Wind blows straight down off the mountain into her face; she pulls the hat down to her brows, winds her scarf up high and tight around her face, so that only a slit remains for her eyes. There’s not much to see, between the dying light and the blowing snow. But she walks.

She will walk until she reaches the top or until her body cannot walk anymore, she has decided. Her second great decision: the first was to walk away, and the second is to walk on

She cannot feel her fingers or toes, and under the oilskin, her legs are damp inside the trousers. She knows what a bad sign that is. Wet means chill means shivering means exhaustion means death. But that’s for later. For now: walking.

“Do I miss it?”

She imagines, almost as vivid as if she were there, the tall, black stone walls of the palace. Home. Her bedroom, its bed hung with blue and white, its fireplace, the trays of food that appeared four times a day.

She misses the pony she had when she was a girl. She misses the warm bed, her silk-and-wool dressing gown. She misses the little men. She misses the girl she was Before, who bore her stepmother’s weekly scrutiny without understanding. Who loved apple fritters.

But the pony died, and the girl died too. The girl died after so many close calls that she died a shivering wreck, drawn out from hiding in the little men’s chimney seat only by the scent of that fatal apple.

What came back from death was not the girl, but the wreck.

What walks through the snow is not the wreck, but something new grown from the wreckage. A wiry, tough little vine, perhaps. A thing that has grown despite the poor light of the forest, despite the poor soil of her frightened heart.

The thing she is now—the woman she is now—has no place at that palace. Her hands are hard from months on the road. Her skin is sun-darkened and rough from the weather. Her body is all sharp edges and it smells from too long since it was warm enough to bathe.

The girl from the palace would not have been able to walk up this mountain. The girl from the palace would have sat down in the snow. The woman walks through the cold and the dark, on numb feet with legs so cold they feel as if they’re on fire.

The path evens out to a plateau, a little place where the snow is scoured to ankle depth by the howling wind, so the walking is easier. She leans into it, and the wind holds her up while she trudges forward. It feels like blades against her wet legs, though she knows it’ll dry her out a little, maybe save her life.

What’s odd is the faint scent of smoke.

The path is hard to see on this flat place, and it’s so dark. Up against the mountain, where the path begins to rise again, should be a little spot sheltered from the wind. If it’s dry there, she will allow herself to rest. If she’s granted a bit of shelter, she can stop.

She walks, so far past tired that she feels outside her body. Her aches are hypothetical. She is an arrow pointed at the moment of choice, at the base of the next rise, where she will decide whether to sit down, wrapped in her blanket, or go on.

Even odder than the stronger scent of smoke is that she thinks she can see a light—dim and orange, at eye level. And it doesn’t go away as she walks. If anything, that small glow only gets stronger.

Up against the lee of the mountain, the wind drops off abruptly, and her ears don’t know what to do with the quiet. They continue to rush.

Without the wind making her eyes water, she can see the light clearly, and the dim shape of what could be a cottage. A dim light, and the scent of smoke.

The incongruity of it makes her stop. Her decision had been to walk, but she hadn’t anticipated this obstacle: shelter and company. The one she wants, and the other—well, it depends.

She could find a house full of little men and sink gratefully down to rest. Or she could find princes with their greedy mouths. Stepmothers and their murder plots.

She has the knife. She can use it. If she must. At the very worst, it will work as well against her own flesh as any other.

The door bangs open, and she jumps.

What walks through the snow is not the wreck, but something new grown from the wreckage. A wiry, tough little vine, perhaps. A thing that has grown despite the poor light of the forest, despite the poor soil of her frightened heart.

“Get in here, whoever you be,” barks a nasal voice. “I’ve no desire to let in the wind or to dig past your corpse come morning.”

She goes in.

The warmth makes Snow’s face itch almost immediately, followed by the fronts of her thighs, her fingers. The cottage has a low roof, and even the dim light of the fire and one lamp seems bright after her hours of walking in the dark.

The person standing in front of her is shorter than she but not as small as the little men, swathed in so many layers that the shape is cylindrical. The person stands in front of the fire, their face in shadow.

“Well, get you to the fire, boy,” the voice says, and Snow thinks old woman, with a brief thrill of fear that it should sound so familiar.

If the woman offers her fruit, Snow will go back out into the storm, chill and wind be damned. But for the moment, she goes to the fire. She strips off her gloves and hisses at the pain of her fingers regaining their feeling.

Snow jumps at the feeling of hands at her waist. The old woman is untying the bundle.

“Settle yourself, child. I mean you no danger, but we must get these wet clothes off you.”

Snow tries to help, but her cold-stiffened fingers are no use for anything other than an ache and a deep, crawling itch.

“Coat,” the old woman says and pulls it away, lays it on the floor, wool side out to warm up. “And sit you down.”

Snow does as she’s told and tells herself not to scuttle backward when the woman reaches for the boots.

“Jumpy critter, aren’t you? Off with those wet trousers or you won’t get warm.”

The woman peels Snow’s clothes off her, until she’s down to blouse and drawers, rubbing her own legs and hissing.

“Strange enough to find a boy out alone in a winter storm,” the woman says after a stare, her hands on her hips. “Can’t imagine any girl would have a happy story to tell.”

She reaches around Snow to hook a kettle up on the hob.

“And you don’t have to tell it, neither. I’m none so helpless that you should get ideas, but there’s safety to be had here, if you want it, and you’re welcome to wait out the storm. Fetch up something warm, it doesn’t matter what you take.”

Snow sees piles of fabric all around the small hut: woolens together, linen, cotton. One small, bright pile of silks. She digs through the wools—all of them tattered, most of them fragrant in the most negative sense of the word—until she finds a pair of leggings and a sweater so large it might’ve belonged to a giant’s child.

“I thank you,” Snow says once the roil of safety warmth alive alive backs out of her throat.

When the kettle boils, the woman throws a pinch of something from a small wooden box into a clay cup. It makes a citrus-scented tea.

“You drink that,” the woman says, “and I’ll thank you to bank the fire before you go to sleep. Lucky for you I wasn’t snoring in my bed yet, but I’ll put that off no longer.”

“Strange enough to find a boy out alone in a winter storm,” the woman says after a stare, her hands on her hips. “Can’t imagine any girl would have a happy story to tell.”

She stumps to the back wall, away from the door and window, and rolls herself in yet more layers. Even before the cup is empty, Snow learns that the woman was not being metaphorical about snoring. After months of forest sounds, the human noise seems loud and troublesome, and Snow expects to lie awake. But she banks the fire. She wads up the oilskin cape, dry side out, for a pillow, and pulls more rags off a nearby pile to burrow under, surprises herself to wake at dawn, stiff from chill and not having moved.

The woman snores through Snow making up the fire. She discovers a porridge pot shoved into the back corner of the hearth and pulls it out to heat. She sits back on her heels to think.

The wind still howls outside, and the dim light barely gives any light through the little window. This is a poor place, drafty and tattered, none too clean. Her clothing is dry. She could put it on and go back out into the storm. Or she could wait it out, as the woman offered, and put her hands to work.

If the woman seems safe, yes. If not, then Snow has had a bit of good luck in a pinch, and she won’t gainsay it. Also, she has that knife.

The woman sleeps long enough for Snow to grow bored and snoop. She discovers the tiny larder behind one tattered wall-hanging, baskets of wrinkled potatoes and (of course) apples, onion braids, part of a ham. Bottles and bottles of things mysterious, and a back door. A slightly covered spot just beyond it that obviously serves as the winter privy, its sole redeeming quality being somewhat sheltered from the wind.

Pieces of fabric are stuffed into every possible crevice. Even in the larder, the ham hangs from a looped braid of what looks like frayed linen. The floor is covered in a patchwork of different textiles sewn together.

The woman's awake when Snow comes back, kettle hung back on the hob. She straightens to greet Snow with a grin.

"Twenty winters I've lived on this mountain, and never a morning when I woke to find my fire stirred and my room warm. You've made it feel like a holiday, girl."

Snow tries to think whether one person has ever smiled at her in plain welcome—without any jealousy, desire, or awe in it. Whether anyone has been simply glad to see her, just for her.

She comes up with nothing, and the nothing rises up in her like an errant wave, from deep within her belly until it shoves its way out her throat in a sob that sounds like a howl, and she finds herself weeping as she hasn't allowed herself to do since her first night at the little men's house back before she died, crouched over with her arms wrapped around herself. A small, calm corner of her mind is half horrified and half scolding that she would startle this woman so.

"Oh, child," the woman says and stumps over to fold Snow in an embrace of smoke-scented wool and skinny arms with enough strength to squeeze hard, until Snow feels solid in her body again, no longer apt to fly out of herself.

"I'm sorry," she says with a hiccup once she breathes again.

"No need for apologies, my girl. Twenty winters I've lived on this mountain, but I don't forget what made me leave the valley twenty springs ago. Maybe I'll tell that tale on a warmer day. But you've yourself to sort out, and I have work to be at. Guest or no, spring’s still coming."

The woman pulls a basket from under her cot. From the basket, she pulls a partially knitted sweater in rose-pink on large needles.

"Give yourself a scrub, girl, while breakfast heats up. I'm sure you've got nothing these old eyes haven't seen before."

And Snow's filthy enough to do it, to shiver only with cold as she gives herself a quick scrub with melting snow in front of the fire. After, she puts on her spare linens and sets a new bucket of snow by the fire to melt for the day's water.

"That's well done, child," the woman says.

"Snow," she says, "my name's Snow."

The woman laughs, eight teeth unevenly spaced in her round jaw, her eyes disappearing among all the folds of her face. She laughs until she holds up the knitting to hide her open mouth.

"Of course it is, lovey, Snow brought to me in a snowstorm. I'm plain Ruta, and ready for breakfast," she says when she finally stops laughing.

Ruta makes tea from the bark in the third drawer down on the right. It's bitter stuff, and the porridge is a gluey mess, but it's a warm meal under shelter with company, and Snow feels some of her hard edges melt off.

"Do they have the old saying about idle hands where you're from?" Ruta asks when they're done and Snow has scrubbed the dishes in the chilly meltwater, refilled the bucket.

Snow tries to think whether one person has ever smiled at her in plain welcome—without any jealousy, desire, or awe in it. Whether anyone has been simply glad to see her, just for her.

"They do," she says, "and even if they didn't, I'd rather not sit on my hands all day."

All the work to be done is textile-related: Snow can embroider quite well in the way of princesses, but she can neither knit, nor weave, nor spin. Ruta rolls her bottom lip out in obvious derision at this discovery. So Snow's first day is spent picking apart knitwork from one of the many piles around the cottage and rolling the yarn up into balls, sorted into baskets according to thickness and presumed material. 

By the afternoon of the second day, that particular pile of old leggings and sweaters is gone, and Ruta sets her to picking apart linen towels and rolling the thread. All the items are ancient, dirty and felted or half holes. It's filthy, tedious work that makes Snow's hands ache.

But it passes the time, and Ruta's a good talker: she knows how to balance silence with chat. She asks Snow for all the fairy stories of her childhood. She cackles with delight over "The Last Blue Flower of Twilight Mountain" and "A Hearty Slice of Child Pie."

She tells her own stories, about talking sausages and magic wheelbarrows that propel themselves. Snow catches herself weeping onto a bit of elderly linen that was once bright with satin-stitch daffodils.

"Sorry," she says, and wipes her eyes on the old towel, which makes her eyes sting.

"Don't bother yourself," Ruta says, "after the thaw I'll wash it all anyway. You're just getting me started early."

"I knew some people who would love those stories," Snow says. "A magic wheelbarrow is almost everything they've ever wanted."

"Sensible folk," Ruta says.

The storm lasts for another four days, during which they fall into a pattern of quiet work, infants' tales, and Snow keeping up the fire. Twice she trudges out beyond the back door to the enormous wood pile to haul in logs that steam by the chimney for a full day before they can burn. She washes her travel clothes in melted snow and ponders what lies further down the road.

She feels held in stasis, in a quiet, secret space. The dim light and mounds of cloth hold her close, hidden—not the bare, glittering display of the glass box.

Her reprieve ends on the second day of clear, frigid weather, when Ruta spills the kettle, mutters to herself, and pulls a threadbare cotton towel out of the air.

Snow finds herself in the opposite corner of the hut, her arms over her face, shuddering. 

It was always bound to be another witch, wasn't it? Just like in the fairy stories: once magic sets its eye on you, there's never another safe place again.

"Snow," Ruta says, walking forward, her hands out.

Snow hears herself screech.

The knife is in her pack, under the window. On the other side of the old woman. On the other side of doom.

"It's just a bit of magic, girl, nothing to fret over."

Snow laughs, high and frantic, and scuttles sideways like a spider, toward the door, the door, just get to the door and away.

But the chill is like a hammer. She's caught in the open doorway, knocked senseless by the air so cold and dry that it sucks the breath out of her, and in just those four heartbeats she can feel her fingers start to tingle. There's death out there, certain, under that pale white light.

"It's magic drove you here, then?" Ruta says behind her.

Snow nods.

"Well, you've fetched up with the most pitiful witch in all the known kingdoms. If there was ever any magic not to fear, it's mine."

Snow turns her head to stare. Ruta stares at her with sorrow in her expression, and her hands are still held out, as if Snow were a skittish horse.

"I have only one talent, child," Ruta says, and gestures around the hut. "I call rags."

Snow blinks.

"Oh, it's true. The gods saw fit to give me power. But possibly the most ridiculous power anyone could dream up."

Ruta sits on her cot.

"My village wanted no part of a witch—anyway, not one with a useless talent. Maybe they'd have turned their faces if I'd made the milk sweeter or drawn up coins from the earth. But no. I raise my hand into the air, and the things at the very bottom of the mending pile or the rag bag come to me. One exciting dream and I wake up under a pile of shit-covered horse blankets and torn burp cloths. Unless you're mortal afraid of dirt, you've got nothing to fear from me."

Snow's mind is as blank as the snow outside, but she finds that her arms have lowered to her sides, and the high whine of her panting breath has quieted.

"Shut the door, darling," Ruta says gently, and Snow does.

She sits with her back against the wall and listens while Ruta prattles on about her wretched little magic, the endless cycle of unpick-wash-dye-weave/knit that has kept her larder stocked, year in and year out for two decades. The spring and autumn trips down the mountain with a handcart full of sweaters, towels, and cushions.

She waves her hand seven times in a row and pulls out of the air: two-thirds of a cotton pillowcase, a woolen hat that looks as if a dog bit the top out of it, one glove missing two fingers, a frayed pair of linen drawers stained in all the wrong places, a felted mat covered in straw and animal hair, a square piece of fabric stiff with some dark material neither of them wants to guess at, and the dirtiest piece of silk Snow has ever seen, the size of her palm.

Ruta sighs as it all, and the absurdity hits Snow like a tree branch to the head. A giggle pops out of her mouth, and then she's unable to stop, shrieking with laughter until her sides ache, until she snorts, which just makes her laugh worse. Then, in the space of one inhale, it all tips sideways into tears.

"There you go," Ruta says, "you go right on and leave it right there."

Snow leaves her history in that spot by the door, where it mostly keeps to itself and doesn't bother. On the days when it chews on her edges until the hut's too small for comfort, Snow puts on her coat and leather gloves and trudges out to the woodpile to move logs around until she no longer feels too big for herself.

Otherwise, they work. Snow picks and winds. Washes the worst-smelling rags, until the hut doesn't have quite such an odor to it.

"You'll ruin your hands, washing in such cold water," Ruta tells her.

Ruin them for what? Not for anything that matters. It makes a nice change from picking and winding.

She learns to knit, and to weave once Ruta has set up the loom for her.

Snow spends a whole day hunting through all the piles of fabric and comes up with an armful of silk scraps and fine wool, some of which clean up well enough for use. She installs herself next to the cabinet where Ruta stores her finished goods and embroiders all the towels and runners with the flowers and curlicues she learned as a child, squinting under the light of the little window.

She pricks her finger once, and three drops of blood fall onto the linen.

Snow huffs her annoyance, and makes a large, satin-stitch daffodil over the spot.

It's the work of a princess, put to use to feed the land's poorest witch for the next hard winter.

"What beauties. I'm near afraid to touch them," Ruta says, and turns her head so that her single tear falls onto the floor.

Snow knits herself a pair of leggings. She washes the giant sweater, patches up its holes using yarn from the unraveling cuffs, and claims it as her own.

She stands over the wash pots at the thaw, then the dye pots, until her cuticles are mud-brown from accumulated dyes. She weaves, and knits, and if her body has grown softer than her time in the woods, she feels her heart beating steadier in her chest.

When the shadow from Ruta's time-stick hits the spring rock, they pack her handcart with textiles and trudge down the mountain to fair. A new country, on the other side of the mountain, where the princess who once lay in a box is a bedtime story.

Snow sweats through the first two days of the fair—the press of people around her is like a cage threatening to close her in. But oh, there's bread to be bought, and fruit cordial, and hot little meat pies that sit in her belly like a promise. There's a bathhouse that reminds her that luxury exists. There are goodwives and masters who raise the embroidered towels with smiles in their eyes and fill Ruta's fingers with coins that Ruta divides up and ties into a handkerchief (not too dirty) that she pulled from the air.

"These are yours, fairly earned," Ruta tells her. "What will you do with them?"

"I hardly know."

And then, later that afternoon: apples. Snow stands in front of the stall, staring at the pyramid of yellow-striped red fruit. She waits for the familiar dread to rise up in her, but it never comes.

They are just apples, and she is just Snow. She can turn her back on that pile of fruit and wish the seller well.

"You have a home with me if you want it, child. Now, or the next time you need to climb a mountain," Ruta says while Snow packs one well-mended rucksack with the little men’s cooking pot and knife and a small collection of re-sewn linen smocks and leggings.

A warm wind comes off the river, and Snow smells summer on it, water, and something tantalizing. The scent of a new road.

Snow hugs the old woman, who pulls tattered things out of the air and keeps them until they can be made new again.

"I'm going to go forward," she says. "I want to go on."

Virginia M. Mohlere was born on one solstice, and her sister was born on the other. She owns too many fountain pens and heckles her members of Congress on Twitter. She fills her notebooks with scratch paper, which is totally confusing when she uses old drafts of her own work. She talks to trees. Sometimes they answer. Her work has been seen in Ideomancer, Mythic DeliriumStrange Horizons, and Through the Gate, among others.