By the time Renault comes back with the witch, Alya has broken two ceramic bowls and is working to strip the sheets from the bunk beds. The dark-haired woman stares at my daughter, her steps slowing as she reaches the middle of the room.
“Mama,” my youngest whimpers, and I open my arms to her. From her hiding place under the kitchen table with her sisters, Fayette flies to me and latches onto my waist like a white-striped treejumper. She’s never been comfortable around the magic users, but we have no choice.
“Are you all right?” Renault asks, his voice low in my ear. I nod. It’s a lie. I am so far from that state, I can’t even speak.
“No one understands!” Alya screams, trying to rip the sheets with her bare hands. Six years has not given her enough strength to do so, thank Woz. “No one loves me! None of you! You’re ruining my life!”
“Cherie,” the witch says softly. At that endearment, Alya turns to look at her for the first time, chest heaving, angry tears still streaming down her face, steaming.
“Valerie, take the children outside,” Renault murmurs, but I shake my head. I will stay this time. I will not leave her alone with another stranger. I need her to know that while her first statement may be the truth–I don’t understand her–her second is not. My heart is for her, whatever she might think. I lift Fayette into his arms, as if to say, “Take them if you want to.”
“Why do you rage, little bird?” the witch asks.
“Val,” Renault repeats insistently, but I ignore him. You married a nightstallion of a woman, Renault. You knew that. You could’ve had petit Léa or pretty Sylvia, but you chose the blacksmith’s daughter.
“No one understands,” Alya repeats, but I see the storm in her waning. My heart falls; if the witch cannot see the full effect, will she still be able to help us? I needn’t have worried. Alya kicks at a fragment of the bowl, sending it flying toward us. The witch stops it in the air with a lifted hand.
“Do you want to hurt your family?” the witch asks, and Alya’s temper ignites again.
“This isn’t my family,” she shouts. “A family loves you, a family respects you! A family does not work you like a slave.”
The witch pivots to me. “What did you ask of her?”
“I asked her to wash the soup bowls. Just the bowls, not even the pot or the spoons.” The offense in it still mystifies me, but it is always like this. The tiniest request prompts a hurricane. I am tired of being wrecked, inside and out. I am so tired. My gaze goes to the window; it’s dark now. She won’t try to run away; she fears the forest at night, like the other girls. At least she is like them in that.
Alya slumps into a chair and puts her head in her hands with a sob. Slowly, I pick my way through the sharp shards to her. I put my hand on her blonde head, feeling my own lower lip tremble. Even though she’s two years older, like Fayette, she turns and buries her face in my skirts, wrapping her arms around me like a vise, her body shaking. I rub her back in slow circles. Behind me, Renault and the witch are speaking in low tones.
“Mama.” My heart pangs that Alya’s voice is hoarse from her exertions. “I’m hungry.”
The storm is over. There is still the aftermath, but the worst is done. Her sisters know it, too; I can hear them crawling out from under the table. I cross carefully back to the kitchen and find her some soft cheese with herbs in it, the kind she likes, with a little crusty bread.
“Thank you, Mama,” Alya says with a watery smile. “Do you know where my paper dolls are?”
She’s all sunshine or all storm, in the blink of an eye.
“I do,” Margot pipes up, and I give her a grateful pat on the head as she leads the girls into the closet. Even Fayette wriggles from my husband’s arms to scramble after them. So forgiving. I would like to think I’ve taught them that, but I don’t know.
“Is it always like that?” The witch asks as Renault offers her a chair.
“Sometimes worse,” I say, relieved that I have found my voice again.
Renault speaks up. “Every day. Or nearly that. She is bankrupting us with broken pottery.”
I peek into our bedroom; Alya is giving Clothilde a bite of her snack.
“And you have spoken to the priest?”
I nod. “He says it’s not spiritual. He recommended a firmer hand with her.”
Renault snorts, and the witch raises an eyebrow.
“He recommended that we spank her,” I admit. “It hasn’t helped.”
“Only made things worse,” my husband agrees.
“And the doctor?”
“The one in town, Monsieur Garnier, did not know of any affliction that might do this.”
The witch sighed. “Well, it’s not the magic. It was nervous around her, sensing the emotions, but it wasn’t interacting with her at all. I’d have been able to feel that. And I don’t see any marks of a curse.”
Tears burn behind my eyes, but I won’t let them fall. The girls could come back in at any moment. I save them for tonight, tucked in bed, with Renault like a wall behind me, arms wrapped tight around me. Stay closed. Just for now.
“There is another person we haven’t considered: Madame Montagne. She specializes in many things. I have sent families to her before, and many came back helped.”
“But isn’t she expensive?” I ask, twisting the edge of my apron.
“Not always. It may be that you have something else she would want.”
“A Favor,” Renault murmurs, and a shudder goes through me when the witch nods. I have always avoided magical debt, but for Alya…
“The journey is far, though,” the witch says. “At least two weeks each direction.”
“We can’t take them all with us,” I whisper to Renault, and he just looks at me sadly. “And what about the animals? We can’t…”
“Thank you for your time,” he says to the witch, getting to his feet and offering his hand. He pays her at the door and wishes her a safe journey home. He sits back down next to me, and I take his hand, twisting our fingers together, tipping to rest my forehead on his shoulder.
“What should we do?” I feel his voice rumble through his bones.
“If we do nothing, nothing will change.”
“Or it may get worse.”
I sit up, wiping tears I hadn’t held back after all. “I can’t handle that.”
“So I say again: what are our options?”
I reach out and stroke his dark beard, sprinkled with gray like dandelion seeds. “You should take her and go. We’ll sell Foxy. I think she’s pregnant, we’ll get a price.”
He scowls. “What will you do for milk, then? The goat doesn’t give enough…”
“We have cheese. Maybe someone needs help with washing…”
“You’re stretched too thin already, and it’ll be worse when I’m gone. We can’t–”
“Renault, please.” My voice breaks, and I put a hand over my mouth to try to take the sound back. His face softens, and he pulls me into a hug. “She’s our daughter. We have to help her. We have to prove her wrong. We have to.”
“I know,” he says, squeezing me tighter. “You’re right. Of course you’re right.”
Clothilde wanders in then, and I quickly wipe my cheeks.
“Yes, cherie?” The way she’s rubbing her eyes tells me what she wants; it’s been a long day. I lift her into my arms so she doesn’t cut her feet. Renault will sweep while I bathe them, and soon, it’ll be like it never happened. Only it did happen, and it will happen again. Beyond Renault’s love, it is the only thing I’m sure of.
They bathe as children do, with silly bubble beards and flicked splashes and happy shrieks, the rest of the evening already forgotten. But I know they’re exhausted when Clothilde and Fayette fall asleep before I’ve finished The Cat Who Caught the Moon, one of their favorites. I kiss Margot on the top bunk, still reading her own book in the dim firelight, and she gives me a smile. When I kneel next to Alya, I tuck the covers tighter around her, because I know she likes the feeling. I do know you, darling. I know you won’t touch broccoli, and I know you hate the feel of stiff church dresses around your neck. I know you could recite all our bedtime stories by heart. I’m paying attention, I promise I am. I’m sorry I haven’t figured this out yet. I am trying. Please believe me.
“You’re going on a trip soon,” I tell her with as big of a smile as I can muster.
I nod and kiss the top of her head, lingering a bit longer than I did with the rest of them. “You’re going to see a friend of ours. Someone who can help.”
Her eyebrows dance in confusion. “Help with what?”
The words catch in my throat. “Never mind. Sweet dreams, little one.”
Two days later, the whole family comes out front to see them off. Her cloudy breath mingles with the horse’s as I help her up in front of Renault.
“I wish you could come, too,” she pouts, and I try to give her a smile.
“Me too. Be good for Papa.” It’s so deeply wrong how thankful I am to have a break from her, and the guilt of it cuts me like a hunting knife, a new one.
“Send me a letter everywhere you stop,” I tell Renault sternly, and he gives me a grin, even though I know he’s hurting, too.
“Just don’t let the children see their content.” I whack his leg, and the horse thinks I’m prompting her and lurches forward. The other girls wave with me. But by the time the horse disappears around the bend in the road, I’m alone in the yard. There are chickens that need feeding and dishes that need washing from our hasty breakfast. It’s accomplishing nothing, watching the empty road. It doesn’t even make me feel better. But standing there, I send my heart after them.