The boy always weeds in the morning when dew-damp ground is easier to loosen. He half hopes and half fears that the Witch lived, so she'll come back to see what he's done. Of course, he wants her to like it. He knows his brother and sister aren't just spooking him when they talk about how dangerous she was, because Red is up late with bad dreams. That's why she sleeps through the morning while Jack milks, Father bakes, and Mother cleans.
This morning Father has a scone ready for his son to take next door. But for some reason, today they forget to tell him, "Don't bring anything out of the garden." Last year, Father even said it up to four times in an hour, but maybe he got out of practice during winter. None of them ever want to go with him, but they all agree he needs something to pass the time.
He walks next door and wishes he had something to show for his tending besides strong, brown fingers with a few nicks. In the cold air of early spring, he swings open the decaying gate instead of climbing the wall. The nibbled scone is still warm in his chapped hands when he spies her.
Among the blades of new plants, a woman is staring at the only bare patch of ground and wall. He stops, not because he's afraid but because he feels he ought to be. He's scared that he's not terrified.
She doesn't seem to expect anything of him. Without turning to look, she asks, "What've you done to the beanstalk, kid?" Her voice is grainy but sweet, like brown sugar.
His brows furrow as he thinks about last years' crop. "You mean the shriveled old dead viney plant? It fell over. I buried it, but it never came up."
"Dead things don't come up when you bury them." She unclenches her fists and wiggles her fingers as if trying them out. "I suppose that's why I'm free like this, but a witch without magic is worth no more than a cursed one."
She sweeps around and collapses on a worn block of stone fallen from the wall, and she spears her fingers through her shapeless red-brown curls. At last she remembers to look up and sneer at him. "What are you looking at?"
His words spill out. "Are you the shriveled old dead next-door Witch?" (Red especially likes to add that the Witch would've gotten old and ugly after losing her beans again, and she's always been a capital W to him.)
The woman treats him to a deadpan stare. "Do I look old, shriveled, or dead to you?"
He shuts his mouth because, well, she doesn't. She doesn't look as young, fresh, or alive as his mother, but he can't help seeing timelessness. He chews his lip, mulling over what the woman said about the beanstalk. Goodness knows Red's not right all the time (older sisters never are), but he wants to be sure. "So you're not the Witch who used to live here?"
"Used to? Who cares what used to?" she cries. He wishes she'd stop answering questions with questions. She disentangles her hands and stares at them, loosely curled in her lap. "Everything is empty since yesterday. I might as well move on."
For the first time, he notices dark circles under her eyes. She's been running without moving on. "How long ago was yesterday?" he asks, suspecting she's in that strange adult world where comforting words grow shadows.
Her soft but bitter laugh, like dark chocolate melting, seems to say, "Long enough that it makes me tired, not angry." She actually says, "Long enough that I won't turn you into a newt or a loaf of bread for asking."
Mother always says to listen, but she also says to be polite. "Thank you?"
"It's easy to promise when I can't." She carves him up with another stare. "So what's your tale?" She spreads out her hands in a motion as fluid as her words are clipped. "Spellbind me."
He takes a second to decide the most important facts about himself. "I'm turning seven sometime. I got a lot better at throwing snowballs this winter 'cause I practiced on Jack. Red helped too. She taught me never to hit someone faster than you. They're my brother and sister. Father always had cinnamon rolls ready for us after." He holds up the scone. "He's the best baker. Want to taste?"
The woman narrows her eyes at him, and the irises flash. "Oho, the Baker's son. Which are you, then, a liar or a thief? Both?" Her voice is flat.
He's sad that she's lost interest in the scone and the tale, confused at how she's gone from cool to burning. "I'm not, I'm not," he says. "My mother doesn't let me steal anything, especially not from here—"
He means to confess to her, the remedy for lies, but her eyes widen again. "Your mother? Who's your mother?"
The word changed everything again. "Dad calls her 'Rella. She always knows when I'm naughty because a little bird tells her."
"That's not a figure of speech with your mother?"
"I wish. They're probably spying now. We just live next door." He shoots a look over his shoulder, suspicious.
"What about your real mother? When did you build the bakery again?"
"I call the one who died Mama. Mother and Father built the bakery together and built each other too. That's what he says, but I can't remember when she wasn't my mother. I do remember the wedding a little because I carried the ring." He gets a little angry that she doesn't think he can have Mama and Mother both. "And she's real and she's my mother and she loves me. So she is my real mother."
"A child for warmth and a baker for bread and a princess for a mother. I never… knew." For the first time, the woman sounds almost gentle, but still firm, not giving way. She smiles with one corner of her mouth. "Your father had a sister."
"Like my sister?"
"Nothing like your sister. And by your definition,I was her mother."
He gasps. "That makes you my gran—"
"Don't be stupid. I'm nobody's anything-mother anymore." She inhales through her nose. "Not yet, anyway. My daughter's twins are out there with their father." She stands, her cloak billowing so that the leaves inside swirl."I'll see them."
It's like a command, and he hates commands. If the twins are anything like him, so will they. "I don't think they'll really want to see you."
Quite grim again, she frowns and looks down at him. "Whatever you are, you're not nice. What are going to do with that ground?" She points at the wall once covered in a beanstalk.
"I thought I'd plant flowers. I like ro—"
"No roses. They're thorny things."
"They're not all bad. Just protecting themselves."
"Are they." Not a question. "I suppose the rampion still outgrows its patch."
He nods, but she seems to be wrapping matters up like her cloak around her body. He asks in a hurry, "Do you mind if I take some of the herbs to my father? Like rosemary, it's good in bread."
"I gave my home to you years ago. The magic's gone out of it. You're safe to take what you like."
The word safe seems to leave a bad taste in her mouth, but all the Baker's son can think is, You are the Witch, I knew it, you are, I told you so!
She throws back her wild hair and blinks into the thawing spring sun. "Let the leaves fall there. They can rot and crumble until you can use the ground for something new. Like this old-young shriveled-fresh dead-alive witch's body." She breathes out and lowers her head.
The Baker's son rubs his eyes. She seems to draw into herself and into the distance without lifting a foot. Before she vanishes, her hoarse voice comes right into his ear.
"Get lost in the woods, kid." The sneer softens. "But find your way home."