No, it's not been updated, it's still the same story, just with some of the mistakes corrected.

STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED

It was one of those hot, heavy days, when the air is damp and dense even in the early morning, and the low clouds on the horizon look as if they resent being awakened. The sky had already been a blazing, brilliant blue when Sophie had awoken, even though the pale, burning white sun had not been up very long. Now it was half past midday, and the sky was gone violet-gray with low, rumbling clouds. The sun seemed to be cowering behind them, and already sheets of rain were veiling the hills in the distance.

The dishes from the noon meal were already done; Sophie hadn't been any more inclined to cook than Michael had been to eat hot food on such a stifling, sweltering day, so they had done with bread, cheese and jam. Afterwards, Michael had gone off to weather the coming storm with Martha at Cesari's bakery, leaving the castle to Sophie and Calcifer.

Now Sophie was hanging out the door as Calcifer moved the castle through the flower fields skirting the Waste, trying to catch a cool breeze chasing ahead of the storm up on the high hills. She'd given up on the flower shop for the day; no one had been in all morning, and no one was likely to come out during the thunderstorm about to pummel Market Chipping. Besides, the flowers all were wilting, despite her efforts to talk life back into them. They didn't seem to want to be about in the heat anymore than the customers did.

The door that Sophie clung to gave a sudden rattle and a shake. She drew back from it in surprise and some alarm. It had never done that before. The rattle came again, but it was followed by a great gust of wind, flattening grasses and tearing at flowers as it swept the meadows. It pulled the door right out of Sophie's hand and slammed it open against the side of the castle. Flower petals whirled into the room and floated to the floor.

"Sophie, it's Howl!" called Calcifer, blown back by the fresh breeze. "Let him in!"

Suddenly, there was a bang and a flash of lightning which didn't come from the clouds overhead and, with an explosion of pale pink, orange, and cream-colored petals, Howl appeared. He was huffing a bit, as if from some exertion, and he carefully carried a small red metal pail in one hand and a parcel under his arm. He saw her at the door and gave a groan of mock exasperation. "Sophie, Sophie, Sophie. Once again, I'm kept out of my own house on your account! Have you any idea how horrendously difficult it is to come through a portal from one direction when someone is holding it open in another? And my arms about to drop off with weariness, too! With the rain coming on in Market Chipping, I had to cobble together a transport spell to get here. Blast it! I've landed in the middle of a rose-bush again! How is it that I always do?"

Sophie tuned out the rest of his fretful prattling and watched with some amusement as he tried to extricate himself from the roses. They seemed irritated with his intrusion, and were reluctant to let him go without punishment. They clung to him and tore at him with their thorns until, with many exclamations of pain and rather tattered pants-cuffs, the Wizard finally broke free.

Sophie braced herself for grievous lamentations about ripped trousers and scratched ankles, but for once Howl didn't complain. He simply marched past Sophie into the darkness of the castle, yelling for her to close the door ahead of the storm. He was clearly preoccupied with something, which made Sophie very nervous indeed.

"Howl, what have you got there?" she inquired, looking suspiciously at the parcel and the painted red pail.

"A fish."

Sophie was perplexed; she could only see water in the pail. "A fish?"

"Yes."

"It looks to me like a pail of water," observed Calcifer helpfully. He leaned cautiously and respectfully back in his grate.

Howl ignored him and carefully placed both pail and parcel on the table. "Sophie! We've a glass bowl, haven't we?"

"We had. You broke it trying to invent a spell to clean windows, remember?"

He frowned. "Bother. We'll have to make do with something else, then. But it must be able to see out. We can't have it dying off –" And he went glancing over the workbench and searching through the cupboards, then finally ran upstairs. He came back down looking rather sheepish and carrying a sizable glass bottle half-full of clear liquid. Sophie's nose wrinkled of its own accord as Howl poured it down the sink. Whatever it was, it was quite strong. Howl rinsed out the bottle with water, saying, "We don't want to make it tipsy," which confused Sophie exceedingly. It occurred to her that Howl wasn't really talking to her at all, and was instead having one of his private conversations with himself.

Without warning, the Wizard hit his bottle hard against the edge of the sink. Sophie jumped. Glass cracked, and the neck of the bottle smashed off. "Don't go trying to sweep that up, Sophie," he commanded, though his concentration was clearly focused elsewhere. "You'll only hurt yourself. I'll take care of it." His hands began making strange motions, and his lips whispered strange words, and before Sophie's eyes, the jagged glass of the bottle warped and melted and twisted outward. It bulbed and bulged and stretched and grew until it was something that distantly resembled a glass bowl. It was misshapen and lopsided and lumpy, but Howl said it would have to do, at least for the moment. He picked it up and set it on the table, then tore into his parcel. Sophie looked on curiously. There was a sack of gravel, a little jar of something that resembled pepper, and two small paper packets. Working almost feverishly, Howl poured the gravel into the bowl he had just created, then poured the water in the pail over it all. He added water to that until the bowl was nearly full. Then he added a bit of fine blue powder from one packet and all of the fine white powder from the other. Both dissolved almost instantly. Howl stepped back to admire his handiwork. "There," he said. "Now it'll be all right for a while."

Sophie peered into the bowl. It looked empty of all but gravel and water. "Where's the fish?"

The Wizard gave her a strange look and pointed to the bowl.

"But Howl, I don't see any fish," Sophie replied cautiously. She was just a little worried that he might have gone truly mad at last.

Howl let out a roaring laugh. "She doesn't see any fish!" he crowed gleefully. "Of course she doesn't. That, my dear Sophie, is because this particular fish is invisible."

Sophie did not very much like being laughed at, and it made her rather cross. "An invisible fish, indeed!" she scoffed. "What a ridiculous, childish prank!"

"Prank?" Howl said innocently. "Oh, no, it's not. It is one hundred per cent genuine."

Now Sophie was really annoyed. "Don't insult my intelligence, Howl! Just how much of a fool do you take me for? Did you actually expect me to believe that?"

"Yes," he answered flatly. "Don't insult my intelligence. I did go out and buy it, you know."

Sophie had not known, but she did now. "You bought that in good faith? You spent moneyon it? How gullible are you, Howl?"

"Not at all, I assure you." He spoke very seriously – which usually meant nothing whatsoever. Howl could look, speak, and act however he liked at any given moment. Sophie was having none of it.

"Howl, whoever sold you that… thing clearly cheated you. He sold you a pail of water and told you there was an invisible fish inside! I can scarcely believe you were foolish enough to fall for such a trick!"

"It's no trick, Sophie," he insisted. "It truly is an invisible fish."

"There is no such thing!"

"Oh, yes, there is!"

"No, there is not!"

"There is so!"

"There is not!"

"There is so!"

"There is no-"

"Just exactly how old are you two, anyway?" demanded Calcifer, interrupting their argument.

Sophie knew the fire demon was right; they were both behaving like squabbling children. But she wasn't quite ready to let the subject lie. "Even if there were really an invisible fish, Howl, what could have possessed you to buy such a thing? What use have you got for it?"

Howl suddenly looked uncomfortable. He fidgeted a bit. Suddenly, he whirled away to the sink. "I'd better clear away this glass before someone gets a nasty cut."

But Sophie had been waiting for him to slither out, and she wasn't fooled by his sudden helpfulness. "A good attempt," she told him, "but you've still got to answer the question."

The Wizard turned back to face her, suddenly looking very annoyed. "If you must know…"

"I must."

"Well… it's just… every wizard ought to have something of the sort on hand. Wouldn't you say so?" he said, smiling brilliantly.

He was lying through his teeth. Sophie recognized the smile, the dazzle, the peculiar tone in his voice. She felt a surge of anger that he would lie about something so trivial – but it was, after all, Howl. One never quite knew what he was really up to – that incident with the skull and the guitar, for example.

"Howl," she began suspiciously. "Is this another attempt to reassemble some dissected Wizard?"

He shot her a genuinely horrified look. "What?"

"Oh, never mind!" she replied, satisfied that he really had no idea what she was talking about. "Have it your own way, than. If you want to play at having an invisible pet fish, you're welcome to do so. I just wish you wouldn't go about spending money on something that isn't really there."

"But I haven't!" he exclaimed indignantly. "It is really there! I made sure of it!"

"Preposterous! You allowed yourself to be cheated."

"Sophie. I am not stupid. I do know an invisible fish when I see one," he said, sounding very annoyed indeed.

"So now you're seeing invisible fish?" cackled Calcifer gleefully.

"You stay out of this!" Howl shot toward the fireplace. Glowering, he turned back to Sophie. "I'm quite capable of spotting a scam, and this is not one. There is an invisible fish in that… well, in there." He pointed toward the thing that had been a bottle and was now a bowl of sorts.

Sophie planted her hands on her hips and sighed in exasperation. Really, this was going too far. "Enough, Howl. Either admit you're playing a game, or realize you've been taken in. There is no such thing as an invisible fish, and I refuse to believe you've got one here. It's as simple as that." She turned on her heel to inform him that the subject was closed and got a broom to sweep up the broken glass, which, despite Howl's promises, was still scattered across the floor and countertop.

That set him off. "Sophie!" he thundered, flinging his hands into the air in elegant, dramatic frustration. "Leave that alone! I specifically told you I would take care of it later!"

"Well, it's later now." Sophie did not particularly feel like obliging his moods, as she was in a mood of her own – and brought on by Howl, too.

But Howl came striding angrily over to the sink, shoved Sophie rather roughly out of the way, and shouted one of his magic words much louder than was necessary. The shards and shatters of glass melted in their places into drops of clear, crystalline liquid, then rolled to meet each other, leaving no trace behind them. When they met, they melted into each other until they had collectively formed a large clear glob, which, at another word from Howl, shrank away from him and went slinking off into nothingness, as if it were both ashamed of being caught out of place and afraid of the Wizard..

"Where did it go?" asked Sophie curiously.

"It's no matter where it went!" cried Howl. "It's gone! That's all you need to know about it!" He sounded truly put out. Sophie knew that the glass and her question had little or nothing to do with it, and that he was only upset because she refused to believe in his ridiculous invisible fish.

He stalked over to a chair. "Can't a fellow do anything around here without having his every motive and motion questioned?" he mumbled, deliberately looking away from Sophie. Then he crossed his arms over his chest, plunked himself down in the chair and pouted. It was most unbecoming. Sophie ignored it. That was the only thing to do when he chose to feign hurt feelings. It was perfectly normal; it happened all the time.

Except this time, instead of huffing and moaning and groaning and fussing and whining about how ill-used he was and how cruel everybody was to him, Howl sat completely still and silent. Somehow, he managed to let his shoulders slump dejectedly even with his arms crossed. His half-lidded eyes were downcast, his eyebrows delicately puckered, and his lower lip stuck out just ever so slightly. It was so unusually subtle for Howl that Sophie began to wonder if perhaps she had really had hurt his feelings.

Then that stuck-out lower lip began to visibly tremble, and she suddenly recalled all the times he had fooled her with this very same act. She remembered how he could look like he'd lost his best friend and both parents all in the same day, then become almost giddily cheerful once he got what he wanted.

"All right, Howl, you can stop that now. You're not fooling anybody."

He looked up to display an expression of false grief and artificial astonishment. "You're too cruel!" he wailed. "Not only must you repeatedly insult me, but then you have to go and make light of my suffering on top of it! And after I've been out in the heat all morning, risking getting caught in the storm – and you're the one who locked me out, too! It's a miracle I didn't end up drenched! And then I cleaned up all that broken glass for you –"

"Which you broke in the first place," Sophie pointed out. "And you were out in the heat squandering our money on cheap tricks. I'm not the least bit sorry for you."

"– And I haven't had anything to eat all morning," Howl continued pitifully, as if Sophie hadn't spoken at all. "I'm tired, and hungry, and all you can do is criticize! Oh, nothing I ever do is good enough! I try so hard to please you, but you are determined to disapprove of me!"

"I doubt you thought an "invisible fish" likely to please me," remarked Sophie dryly. He was simply being ridiculous now. He did look like he was actually getting ready to cry over this nonsense. It was absurd.

"Cold-hearted woman!" he moaned. "You don't even care about all I've been through. And if it isn't all bad enough by itself, there's the worst thing of all – that blasted rose bush out there has shredded my trousers!"

He said it so seriously and with such a look of utter misery that it was too much for Sophie. She burst out laughing. That surprised Howl so much that he came off his act for a moment.

"What is so funny?" he shouted indignantly. "You find this all amusing? I daresay you do. I should have known." He prepared to launch back into his performance.

"If torn trousers is the worst thing you've been through, I think you've got a good lot in life. Better than most, certainly," Sophie managed in between giggles.

"That's well enough, coming from you," he sniffed. "You've never had to deal with torn trousers."

"No, but I've plenty of experience with torn dresses. I can mend your trousers."

"But you won't!" he cried. "You won't, because you're angry that I bought the invisible fish you refuse to believe in."

Sophie sighed. "Howl, I'm not angry. A bit annoyed, and more so because you will keep insisting that it's real, but I'm not angry –at least not angry enough not to mend your trousers. Even though we both know you're perfectly capable of doing it yourself."

"You're better at it," he said softly, almost shyly.

"Hardly. But I'll willingly do it if you prefer me to."

"I do prefer you to."

"Well, then I will!"

"You will?"

"I will."

"Really?"

"Of course I will, Howl, just as I've done right along."

The wizard looked perhaps a bit overly gratified, somehow. There was a moment of silence. Then Calcifer piped up from the fireplace. "That's all? No green slime or weed killer? No overturned furniture or animated household objects? No explosions? I'm disappointed; your arguments are usually much more exciting than this. Can't you do any better?"

Sophie suddenly found herself at a loss for precisely what they had been arguing about. Her bewilderment turned to half-amused annoyance when she noticed Howl glaring viciously at the fire demon; obviously she had been intentionally diverted from the argument and made to forget. Her dear husband had successfully slithered out of yet another conflict – almost. Glancing back and forth between him and Calcifer, Sophie spotted the misshapen lump of glass filled with gravel and water in the middle of the table.

"Trying to slither out again, Howl? You ought to know better by now. And I'd still like to know why you let yourself be scammed. As well as you hide it, I know you're a good deal more intelligent than you look."

Howl raised an eyebrow. "Was that a compliment or an insult?"

"No, it was not a compliment or an insult. It was both," Sophie shot back cheekily.

The Wizard glanced upward, as if requesting more patience from something beyond the ceiling. "Only you, Sophie," he sighed

"Yes, and only you would go out and buy an 'invisible fish', knowing perfectly well it was a hoax!"

"How you do keep going on about that! If you must know, I have several quite good reasons for doing what I did, not the least of which being that the man selling them was a bit down on his luck –"

"Completely understandable, considering the products he's peddling," muttered Sophie.

"And the most important of which I'd rather not have you know just now."

"Meaning you can't think of any."

"Sophie!" he cried agitatedly. "Just because I don't want to tell you my reasons doesn't mean the reasons don't exist! Why do you always have to know everything? You may not be an old woman any longer, but you're just as nosy as you ever were!"

"It's not being nosy if I have a right to know. Don't you think that, as your wife, perhaps I might?"

Howl sighed, and seemed to force himself to relax. "Don't you think that, as a Royal Wizard, perhaps I might have good reason for not telling you?" His voice had gone surprisingly gentle. "I don't want any harm to come to you," he added tenderly. "There are people who might do a great deal to find out what you knew, if I told you. I don't want to put you at that risk."

Sophie hadn't thought of that. Of course! Being a wizard at all was certainly rather risky business; thinking about it, she was a bit surprised that a person like Howl had taken it up. And being a Royal Wizard only meant that one was sure to get into something really dangerous eventually.

Suddenly, Howl seemed very fragile and delicate, and she was reminded that she could just very possibly lose him. What if he met with something stronger than he was? The Witch of the Waste and her fire demon had nearly done for him; what if there was something worse out there? Howl's hints made this new thing sound dangerous, and even worse, political – and he seemed as if he were being truthful this time. Coward as he was, he was probably shivering with fear inside – but on the outside, he looked quite brave and noble. Which gave Sophie to wonder whether that worked out to cowardice or bravery in the end.

This was probably precisely what he wanted. He was likely tricking her again, just as usual – but Sophie didn't care. He had his flaws, but she loved him in spite of them. In light of that, arguing seemed foolish and childish – especially argument over something as silly as an 'invisible fish.'

"All right," she said. "We'll leave it off. There's no use squabbling about it, anyway. What's done is done, and it can't be helped."

Howl looked gratified and thoroughly relieved.

"Now, I think you said you were hungry?" Sophie continued, eager to move on. She got out a plate and cup. "We only had jam and bread and cheese, because it's so hot, but – Hoh!" Howl had sneaked up behind her as she was working and talking, and surprised her with a good solid peck on the cheek. "Oh, you!" she growled in mock frustration. "There, now. Sit down for a minute so I can make your lunch."

Howl sat with a huff and woefully regarded the floor.

"Now what's the matter?" Sophie sighed.

The Wizard gave her his most doleful expression. "My trousers are still torn."

HMCHMCHMCHMCHMCHMCHMCHMCHMCHMCHMCHMCHMCHMCHMC

The next few weeks were uneventful – at least, as uneventful as one could expect when living with a Wizard and a fire demon in a moving castle. No one invaded Ingary, no witches appeared out of the Waste to wreak havoc in the kingdom, and Howl did not bring home any more invisible pets.

The blobby glass vessel full of water and gravel remained in the middle of the table, where it was something of an inconvenience to Sophie. She was forever having to work around it in order to lay the table for meals, but she chose not to complain to Howl in order to avoid another grueling argument. In fact, both she and Howl avoided speaking of it by unspoken mutual agreement.

One day, Sophie did resurrect the subject. "If there's a fish in there, how come you don't feed it?" she asked triumphantly. She was in a rather bad mood that day, and it gave her a sort of spiteful joy to think she had pinned him down.

But Howl turned a perfectly serious face on her and replied mildly, "I do feed it. You just don't see."

"You must go to an awful lot of trouble to hide it, then!"

"Not at all. You're always asleep."

"How can I always be asleep? What, do you feed it in the middle of the night?"

"Usually about two in the morning," he replied primly.

Sophie was more than astonished, and quite annoyed. "You mean to tell me that you get up at two in the morning to feed a fish that doesn't exist?"

Howl looked patient. "It does exist. The food disappears."

"But why?" prodded Sophie. "Couldn't you feed it just as well at two in the afternoon?"

"It's nocturnal," Howl said matter-of-factly, and turned back around to the spell he was working at.

"Indeed!" sniffed Sophie to herself. "What an imagination! But it's all this pretense for no purpose at all that irks me!" And she attacked her own work with such a vigor that the floor stones she was sweeping began to look bewildered and apologetic, as if they couldn't understand what it was they had done to deserve such a beating.

It was toward the end of that very week that Sophie began to come down with a summer cold. She refused to complain about it or lie abed all day for it, as she had found she got disgusted with Howl for that sort of behavior. Besides, lying in bed is uncomfortable when one can't breathe through one's nose. She discovered this one night when she woke up to Howl's gentle breathing beside her and found that her nose was completely plugged up, and that her mouth and throat felt as if she had swallowed a goodly amount of DRYING POWER.

"Ugh, that's what comes of breathing through one's mouth!" she whispered to herself in the darkness as she crawled out of bed. "I simply must have some water!" She crept stealthily out of the room and down the hall, reflecting that colds were very unpleasant things and that perhaps Howl wasn't entirely unjustified in making a great fuss over his. Although he certainly made a great deal more fuss than was truly necessary, even so.

In the midst of these pleasant thoughts, she came to the bottom of the stairs and opened the door out into the main room. And then she did something that she did not do very often at all. She screamed at the top of her lungs. There in the middle of the room, about waist-high in the deep shadows left by Calcifer's dim rosy light, was a great glowing green eye. It was horrible to look at, misshapen and ugly, with a black slitty pupil moving slowly around to focus on her.

There was a thud upstairs, like something heavy falling to the floor. "Howl!" she wailed. But she stood where she was, transfixed in horror by the roving gaze of the great eye. It seemed to lock onto her, and she wondered what awful death she was about to die in the ravenous jaws of the enormous, magical monster that surely lurked behind that single great eye. She stood stock still, heart pounding in her ears, waiting to be eaten.

There was a ghostly moan from behind her on the stairs, and an icy-cold hand suddenly seized hold of her. She screamed again.

"Ugh. Please, don't do that again," mumbled the owner of the hand in a slurred but very familiar voice. "On second thought, go ahead. I think my eardrums are already burst." It was an extraordinarily sleepy Howl.

"Oh, wake up, you idiot!" Sophie shouted in his face. "Don't you see, there's a…" she pointed frantically.

Howl blinked and looked the direction of her pointing finger. Then he sighed, somehow managing to sound exhausted and exasperated at the same time. "I told you there was a fish!" he mumbled. And he turned around to go back upstairs.

Sophie grabbed him by the sleeve of his nightshirt, pulled him back around, and found his cheek in the dark, and slapped him lightly on it. "Wake up!" she shrieked. "This is no fish!"

"Ow," said Howl. "Do stop that. I only want to go back to bed."

"You want to go to bed, when there's a monster down here!" Sophie marveled angrily.

"It's not a monster. It's the invisible fish, I tell you."

"Oh, really?" Sophie was really outraged now. How could he play games at a moment like this? "How large is this invisible fish anyway, that it has an eye that size?"

"That's not an eye," said Howl bewilderedly. "That's the fishbowl."

"It's glowing!"

"No, the water inside is. I put a powder in to make it do that, so you could see the fish by its shadow at night. Can't you see the little black thing in it?"

Sophie could, but it still looked remarkably like an eye to her. "I don't believe it," she said, shaking her head.

Howl sighed again. His cold hand grabbed hers, and he stumped over to the fireplace, dragging her along, then sat her down in the chair. "Calcifer!" he called wildly. "Calcifer, wake up! We need some light!"

"Ugh. No. Howl, it's the middle of the night, go back to sleep!" the fire demon wailed from deep under his pile of logs, sounding much as Howl did when he didn't want to be awakened.

"I'd like nothing better," replied Howl meaningly, "but Sophie won't let me until I show her the invisible fish."

The disgruntled demon blazed up with a huff. "All right, but I'm not cooking breakfast in the morning, then!"

"Fine," yawned Howl. "I've every intention of being asleep at breakfast time." He strode over to the table and picked up the glowing "eye", then carefully carried it over into the firelight. Just as he had said, it was the poorly formed fishbowl he'd magicked out of the bottle. "See? There's nothing to be afraid of!"

Sophie was dubious. "But what I saw was glowing like an eye. And it moved. I thought it was looking me over."

Howl sighed patiently. "I told you. The water glows, so the fish's shadow shows up at night and I can see it's still alive. Come," and, balancing the fishbowl on one hand, he grabbed her by the arm and led her to the broom closet, then shut them both in the dark. The bowl glowed again with that same transparent, yellow-green light which Sophie had mistaken for the reflective glow of an enormous eye. And, surely enough, there in the middle was a misty dark spot, roving slowly around the bowl. It was easy enough to see how her weary mind and overactive imagination had transformed it into the eye of some enormous creature. Even so, she felt rather foolish – an unpleasant feeling which was only compounded by the fact that it appeared Howl had been telling the truth about the fish after all.

Then it struck her. "Howl," she asked suspiciously, "why didn't you show me this before? I would have believed you from the beginning, and I wouldn't have been frightened just now."

"You never asked to see it," he replied as he let them back out of the broom closet. He sounded vaguely perplexed. "I don't usually tell more than people ask to hear. In fact, I often tell a good deal less."

"Unless it has to do with your hair," snorted Sophie. But this, too, was true. Still, she thought perhaps he could have had the common sense to share this particular bit of information.

"If you're quite satisfied, may I go back to bed now?" yawned Howl as he placed the fishbowl back on the table. "I've already been up once before this tonight, and I've got more than enough to do tomorrow." He sounded wearier than even a dying man had any right to.

Sophie rolled her eyes. "Yes, Howl, by all means, go back to bed."

"Thank you kindly!" he cried dramatically, and tromped noisily back up the stairs.

Sophie fetched herself a glass of water, then sat at the table to drink it, watching the dark misty spot swim back and forth. "Invisible fish," she repeated to herself in the darkness. "Incredible. But then, stranger things have happened."

END