Mrs. Eunice Katherine Charlotte Whitworth, née McCafferty, had been a widow for quite some time. The costume of black shoes, of the finest leather; hat, hand-crafted by a genius milliner in the east; and handbag, a knock-off of a famous designer’s, but no one was the wiser; and dress, a closetful of the same style of black dress, linen in summer, and wool for winter, and gabardine for the spring and fall. She walked as if she was rehearsing for a play where she was the star but there was no script. Her appearance, however, was seldom remarked upon by those she strode past, in fact, most didn’t notice her at all, save for a sense of unease, and the feeling that they had been snubbed somehow. An otherwise cheerful day could be suddenly, inexplicably stained with doubt, as if all was not going to go according to plan. She had this effect on people and animals alike. Widowhood did not upset her. It suited her. She always favored wearing black, and this gave her the image of the long-suffering woman, and served her fashion sense, and caused no suspicions. Mrs. Whitworth always strove to seek three purposes to everything: one for the others, and two for herself.
There was one gentleman in town that was not fooled by her false grief. He had been a rival for Mr. Whitworth’s affections for her hand; gods rest his soul, and had lost the war of love. He owned the sundry and exotic shop, on the rounded corner of town, where the mortar did not quite seam the bricks. His trade fluctuated with the economy, and was too dependent upon the whims of the powerful and elite. Mr. Guillaume Gallimaufry Gollüp, III, named for the others before him, but he had placed the “III” after his name to give the impression his lineage was well-established, that there had been men who had won the hearts of women in marriage, and had procreated, replicated more of the same. It was difficult to conjure the image of a man and a woman producing this creature: he stood at 4’11” tall, and had no sharp corners. He resembled a dollop of heavy whipped cream on a vanilla pudding, slightly buttery-yellow in color, and easily scooped. No, perhaps more of a meringue whipped and then baked to make stiff and easily cracked. His baldhead was dry like a baked pastry, due to his skin condition, and his glasses always needed cleaning. This disgusted Mrs. Whitworth, who liked things tidy. Her weekly visits to his shop were a necessity though for her own doings. He sold the one thing that could not be purchased anywhere else; otherwise, she would have never seen reason to be in his odd company.
She handed him her customary disposable handkerchief to clean his lenses as she greeted him. He snuffled in excitement like milk going through the back-end of a straw.
“Is my order ready, Galli?” She hated calling him by his nickname. Only formal names should be used when addressing the opposite sex. Oh, he made her so cross! He would not budge on a few issues, and held her purchases hostage unless she called him “Galli,” and paid in cash. There was one other condition, but she managed to stave this demand with hemmed promises.
He wanted to court her.
Every time she walked in his shop, he did whatever he could to stall her. It was a dance they each knew the steps to, the music never missed a beat. She had been the oddest girl in town. She kept her own council, and he and Mr. Whitworth never noticed her until one afternoon, at a community festival and picnic, when all the other yellow-daisy green-stemmed hair-ribboned girls in town looked like a field of daisies ready to be picked: all the other boys drew their attention, and none of those adolescent petals rained on him, or Mr. Whitworth. Eunice stood stiff as a stalk amongst the more beautiful girls. But the two pale young men did not want to be left out, and that left Eunice. The rivalry began.
They each plied her with flowers. Allergic. They confused her with requests for walks. Can’t you see I am busy? They each asked their dour mothers for advice on how to talk to a girl in desperation. This befuddled their mothers and left them ashamed. Their fathers were no help either, each giving the worst possible advice on how to woo any female, especially one as crêpe-de-chine brittle as Eunice. They were each other’s best friend, and in normal circumstances would have sought out the other for guidance, but since it was a fight to not be the last man standing without a girl, then, well, no comfort or quarter was available. They could play hours of Dragons and Damsels with healthy competition, but that was just a game. In this game, it wasn’t for pretend honor. Manhood was at stake.
The battle turned one summer day. A summer afternoon that met the incongruent Eunice with no apologies for being so beautiful and sunny. It irritated her. Mr. Whitworth noticed her reading, in her usual solitude. He stole into the library, and chose a slim volume of depressing poetry, and casually, carefully, started reading, or pretending to read it, under a tree, placing himself in a strategic vantage point so she could see him if she looked up, but not so obvious it would seem he was there to spy on her.
There had been other unsuccessful routs of Eunice’s affections. Both boys had taken turns trying to serenade her outside her window: Galli was served a cold bucket of water by her father, and Mr. Whitworth was introduced to the local authorities that evening and told to “Go home, son.” They had each tried to start conversations on various occasions, never striking the right tone, and the looks she gave them sent their courage and voices choking back in their throats.
But she noticed Mr. Whitworth reading a book. He was not interested in her; he was interested in that book. She felt uncomfortable, and competitive, but would not acknowledge it. It came from her inner, primitive self, the deep, buried, but the self that wants to get the attention, the attention crackling from invisible pheromones and essences of birds and bees and musk. He was not paying attention to her, and she was sending out signals.
This would not do.
Carefully standing up, with that sensation of floating outside of her own body, having no will or strength to stop her physical actions, she dusted the dried grass off of her skirts (black) and tried to appear casual and she walked near Mr. Whitworth’s spot. In his peripheral vision, he noticed her movement, and like hooked bait, had the patience and resignation to just sit there and wait. He feared any quick movements, or for that matter any movement at all, would spook her. His plan succeeded. She spoke to him:
“Oh, I see your reading the works of Arthur Stubbknockie. I have always enjoyed his earlier writing, during his ‘themes of feasting’ phase.”
She had not strung that many words together in a row, out loud, to any soul since she told her mother never to serve her pea and lentil soup again. She did not know that in order to engage someone in conversation, one must leave the observations open-ended with vague questions: no statements, no yes’s or no’s. Her stumpy observance left him with nothing to say, especially since he didn’t even realize he was reading Stubbknockie, post or pre feast phase. Just sitting there with the book was as far of a plan as he had conceived, and he stumbled for the next move.
Now—if he had known that his success in achieving the hand of the future Mrs. Whitworth might have inadvertently meant his own lack of a future, well, perhaps that is a tale for another time.
But succeed he did. He said, “Oh yes, I find his prose so thought provoking.”
He had heard that once in a show, between the two protagonists.
These were the magic words. They were not about her, and since she sensed, incorrectly of course, that his attentions were waning, and her own young adult need to mate was still intact, she decided he was the one.
Falling in strong admiration and staying in strong admiration are vastly disconnected, however, for many young couples, especially ones who come together out of anything other than true love. Mr. and Mrs. Whitworth were joined in holy wedlock out of curiosity and competitiveness. She conceded to wear white on her wedding day, an ill omen. Galli was the best man, leering at one pale bridesmaid, Mrs. Whitworth’s cousin Beatrice, but even she wouldn’t dance with him.
Since Mr. Whitworth’s passing, Mrs. Whitworth stayed very busy in her little cottage. He had left her plenty of money, more gold than he even knew he had, but she did. She knew every account, every bank teller, and every hidden jar and sock-drawer investment.
With her time, she had taken up folksy sorcery, an idea she gathered from one of her ventures to the library. She practiced small trials of animalism and shape shifting, read from the Book of Shadows and the Tomes of Tongues Volumes I-IV, (Volume V had graffiti and ripped pages, sadly, so she didn’t get to read it in its entirety). She practiced howling at full moons, but only if her closest neighbor was away. She found the canine spells dissatisfying and dirty, but the feline and weasel spells delightful. She devoted her amateurish hours to becoming some kind of slick creature, however, the most she managed was to sprout a few whiskers, and a very rough tongue. The edges of her ears got a little fuzzy, and the beginnings of a tail began to form, but would disappear in about as much time as a pimple. She smelled musky sometimes, which irritated her—too much weasel in the brew.
Frustrated, and realizing she needed to do further research, she took a train to a larger town, hoping its library would have the resources on furthering her self-education on magic. From the station to the library were only a few blocks, so she decided to save some coin and walk. She could have easily paid for a taxi, but this would involve speaking to the hackney driver, and telling him where she wanted to go, and opening her purse, paying him, and giving him a tip. This was too much to fathom. As she strode, purposefully, unaware of how much she stood out in her all-black attire in the cheerful big city, trying to seem inconspicuous, she felt a million judging eyes looking at her. She ducked into an alley, just to breath and regain composure, when a raspy voice whispered to her, “You will not find what you’re seeking where you are going.”
It really is a shame when one considers that although self-education has its benefits, the cost is that you can’t learn everything by yourself. If she had taken the time to join a supportive coven, or at least read more of the social, community news of sorcery, she would have known that strange voices from strange fellows appear all the time to those who are seeking something. Inexperienced witches put out a vibration to the unseen solicitors of dark arts. He knew she was coming, knew she wouldn’t take a cab, knew she wouldn’t know to just walk away now, and report him for harassment.
But, curiosity overwhelms us all, and Mrs. Whitworth was no exception. She stiffened, and responded, “Oh, and how do you know what I am seeking?” He provided as many details of her mission to allow her to be completely flummoxed, and give him credibility. Ultimately, he sold her a book, a very rare book, one that he had several hundred copies of, waiting for distribution for the multitudes of Mrs. Whitworths. It was the undisputed source of shape shifting spells, the Mutator Formarum Quam Ad, the fundamental “how to” guide for those who wish to become something other than human, and back again.
Feeling like the cat who ate the canary, she smugly went home, so excited over her find she even took a taxi back to the train station, and forgot to tip the driver. He cursed her cheapness, muttering under his breath about country bumpkin tourists. Once home, she settled in with a big cup of lemongrass tea, and begin to pour over its spell recipes. There were all the basics: wolf, dog, cat, mouse, sparrow, amphibians and reptiles, and the more exotic species: snow leopard, marmoset, and sea turtles. The truly advanced species, the kingdom, phylum, and family of dragons, basilisks, and bunyips, were far too complicated for her to consider. Even Mrs. Whitworth recognized her limits, and these spells seemed far too unstable. She might turn into a cacus and hunted by mobs with pitch-forks and tar.
She decided to start simply: cat. Yes, a cat would be perfect. The recipe called for a few ingredients: salvia roots, the dirt from a rabbits’ warren, odd, but yes, she had that, and the last ingredient: seven-day old curdled frogsmilk (it took thirty-one frogs and two toads to harvest enough milk for the recipe. Don’t ask about the methods).
It wasn’t likely that she could borrow a cup of the last item from the next-door neighbor, for two reasons: one, it would be damn unlikely, and two, weeks ago, when the neighbor came around to borrow a cup of sugar for some orange cream cookies, she refused, so it was not likely the neighbor would be in a reciprocal mood. Perhaps someone in town carried this item. She put on her hat, her gloves, grabbed her handbag, and off to town she went. Sure enough, by odd coincidence, Galli stocked it.
She had not spoken to Galli since the day of her wedding. She knew he had started a business, a little shop that carried all manner of things, and had never married. She feared he would still be carrying a torch for her; she was that sure of herself, but in this she was not wrong. The first time she stepped into the shop seeking the frogsmilk, his face lit up, he straightened his stumpy posture, and greeted her like a lost love (which, we should supposed, she was).
“Mr. Gollüp, it is good to see you again. I am aware you have an item I need.”
“Eunice! Please! I insist! Call me Galli! Yes! Yes! What do you need?”
“Mr. Gollüp, please refer to me by my married name, sir, and in the future do not be so presumptuous. I need seven-day old curdled frogsmilk, a supply of thirty-one centiliters, please.”
His smile faded.
She was there, and he wasn’t going to let her go. He would have to think quickly.
“Fine, Mrs. Whitworth, but you’ll always be that crinkly Eunice to me!” She popped at attention, like suddenly shocked by static. She glared. Wrong tactic. Change of direction. “I mean, you’ll always be that beautiful, mysterious young lady both Mr. Whitworth and I adored!”
“Do you have the milk or not, Mr. Gollüp?”
“Well, yes, indeed I do. Get a shipment in every week from the south. Rare stuff, and very pricey, sorry to say, sorry to say. But I tell ya what, for you, a deal, on one condition. Call me Galli, and go out for dinner with me.”
The frogsmilk cost, retail, 4,590G per centiliter. A discount…for a name? And a date? Her insides clutched around her imaginary coin purse, and she vomited in her mouth, like a solid burp, its acidic disgust burning her throat on the way back down. She found Galli repulsive.
When she could speak again, wishing for a breath mint, she said, “All right, Galli, but please, I’m still in mourning, so I would ask for your patience on your invitation, as for now I must decline. I would be poor company.”
They settled on a 20% price reduction, she paid for her wares, and went straight home to concoct the cat potion. It was an abysmal failure. The only thing it succeeded in doing was causing her to look like a misshapen drowning victim with black fur. She must have scalded the milk and should have chopped the salvia, not minced it. Realizing her error, she was forced to return to Galli’s shop.
This continued for seven months. Her allergic reaction to the salvia was hideous. A mother rabbit bit her finger when she was digging for warren dirt. The frogsmilk sometimes curdled to frogsbutter, frogsyogurt, or the worst: frogscheese and whey. Galli’s advances grew more aggressive and tiresome, the little toad. But she was getting closer to her goal: each progression of the recipe transformed her more cat-like. She successfully wholly transformed one evening, and it lasted a full night. This apotheosis was breathtaking, and boosted her confidence. The spell read, if done properly, should last as long as the witch or warlock desired, and to keep the antidote handy to transform back at will, the antidote simply being a thimbleful of the frogsmilk. Easy. She always kept a tiny bit put aside for this reason. She did like to plan ahead.
On the seventh month, a month in late winter, she was starting to be concerned about funds. Though to the rest of the world, she still had plenty of gold and then some, she was feeling pinched. She informed Galli that she needed the frogsmilk at an even greater discount; and if he obliged, she would join him for dinner. She stocked up on the milk, and made note of which his suppliers were. She had no intention of continuing to see him if she could help it, and asked if he would come to her home for the evening for a send-off meal. He greedily accepted her invitation.
He arrived at her door five minutes early. His eagerness distressed her, feeling his pallid aura pushing against the doorframe, an invisible force of sweat and rubbery blank stares. When she greeted him, in one hand he held a flask of frogsmilk tied with a gold and black ribbon, and in the other a pomegranate, a most messy and inconvenient of rare fruits. She plunked the pomegranate down in a bowl of onions, and took the frogsmilk and placed it carefully on the table.
The soup course came first. Mrs. Whitworth hated to cook, so she used canned and pre-packaged entrees and appetizers. The soup, cream of mushroom, was lukewarm, and the bottoms of the ready-to-bake rolls were burnt. The ice water has particles floating in it. Galli smiled and slurped his soup, stating it was the finest he had ever had, and how clever, to serve cream of mushroom soup chilled! Must be a new gourmet trend! Mrs. Whitworth then served the casserole, made with fish and more cream-based soup. She thoroughly enjoyed this, even though there were still tiny bones and unidentifiable bits and pieces of brown things. For dessert, she served apple tarts made with some mealy, syrupy apples cooked in sugar and cinnamon. There was too much sugar, not enough cinnamon, and the tart pooled on the little plates like a deflated beige balloon.
The conversation was as bland as the food. She had nothing to say to him, but it was just as well. He talked so much that food barely got down his gullet. During one of his lengthy descriptions on how much rent he paid per square foot and the taxes and the city and the horrible customers ("present company excluded, of course!") he dribbled some casserole out of his mouth back onto his plate. Mrs. Whitworth looked away but wretched and choked a bit. He didn't notice. HIs own voice dominated the room. A plan kept Mrs. Whitworth from screaming out loud: as she sat listening, her eyes hurting, her stomach roiling, she began to think herself the most clever widow in the province, for she had brewed more than fish casserole.
In his aperitif, was a secret that she hoped his annihilated palette would not detect: Bofu Potion. The spells calls for: one mushroom cap of pond scum, three parts princess tears, a dash of lichen, tied together in an unbleached linen shirt with a broken mandolin string.
He drank the concoction, and began to feel queasy. Surely it was the fish casserole. Mrs. Whitworth took his momentary silence to tell him she was thoroughly enjoying the frogsmilk, and wanted to share with him what she had been doing with it. She drank the prescribed amount, and began the transformation into a sleek, black cat, black as midnight under a toadstool's blankets, black as the water in a sea serpant's belly. But as she retained her human self, she wanted Galli to know that his fate had changed, and they would no longer be seeing each other, not as he wished. His skin turned sleek and dryly slippery, pustules and warts popped and bubbled, his rubbery lips widened even further, and he felt as if he were to heave an enormous belch when he let out the loudest, cracking croak. (The neighbors thought their floorboards shifted, looked up quizzically, and then returned to their newspapers, books, and orange cream cookies).
He was a toad, a squat, repelent bag of warts and future feaster of flies.
Mrs. Whitworth started to laugh at her skill, her trick, and her good-riddance forever of Galli. She could turn back to her human self at will, the antidote was just there—and then, with a leap on his newly strong legs that could propel his grotesque stump of a carriage, he sprang forward, knocking spoons end-over-end, like an slipshod circus trick, into her thimbleful of antidote. At that moment, she was completely a cat, with her human thoughts, and the means to get back was gone forever. She howled. Her howl was so fierce, so agonizing, that Galli the Toad bounded out of the room, out the kitchen window, and in his hasty departure from his human life, crossing over the sash and pane to his amphibian one, he knocked over the bottle of frogsmilk, shattering it. The fragile crystal fragments caused every drop to be dangerous and deadly. Mrs. Whitworth growled, and sobbed in her catty-voice. The neighbors dismissed the ruckus as racoons in garbage bins. They kept theirs safely secured, so not their problem.
The rain was devious. It found its way under the easement where Mrs. Whitworth sought shelter. It soaked through her scruffy pelt. It soaked through her paws, making her feel as if she were drowning. This was not how it was supposed to be. She gave one last weak ‘meow,’ and barely heard the approaching footsteps. “Oh, you poor little thing…come home with me, it’ll be all right,” Mrs. Whitworth heard this gentle voice as pale golden arms scooped her up and wrapped her in a warm, dry cloak. She didn’t fight, or claw, but felt relieved. A tiny bit of gratitude in order to regain her dignity was a fair price to pay.