She woke to unfamiliar surroundings. The bed beneath her was much harder than a waterbed, the covers not her usual sheets and duvet but two quilts – they appeared to be handmade, too. She rolled onto her side to see a bedroom much smaller than the one at home, and it contained only a wardrobe – no dresser or closet in sight. The bedside table held a candle in a simple candleholder rather than her grandmother’s electric lamp. The view out the window wasn’t of a city street but forest. No city noises, either, just…quiet.
She sat on the side of the bed and put her feet down onto a cold flagstone floor instead of the warm carpet of an apartment. Looking down, she found a pair of leather slippers lined with sheepskin. The foot of the bed did have a robe to put on over her nightgown but it wasn’t the usual paisley satin kimono. Instead, it felt like fine wool. The air was cool and she wrapped herself in it.
There were two doors. The first one opened onto a bathroom – from the early 20th century, it seemed. It had a toilet, pedestal sink, and clawfoot bathtub. Between the sink and tub was a small shelving unit appearing to have been carved out of a block of stone. It held washcloths and towels on the bottom shelf, a stack of bar soap on the next one up, with another candle and holder on the top. Wherever she was, electricity didn’t seem to exist but at least running water and indoor plumbing did.
The other door opened to…the rest of the house. There was a huge fireplace taking up most of one long wall, complete with hooks for pots. A fire blazed merrily and she gravitated to its warmth while taking in the rest of her surroundings.
One comfortable-looking chair with a small ottoman and side table sat to one side of the fireplace. A scarred wooden table with two chairs was on the other. On the wall opposite the fireplace were shelves which bookended the door to the bedroom and bathroom. One held books but the other four held nothing but glass jars in various sizes, some full of stuff, some empty. Drying herbs hung from hooks on the ceiling beams in fragrant bunches.
The shorter walls had a door each. One, which led to a large garden, had a sink and small counter to one side. There were three sets of mortar and pestle on the counter, as well as a utensil caddy with knives, forks, and spoons. Above the counter was an open cupboard with plates, bowls, and mugs. Below it was another cupboard with one of the largest selections of cast iron cookware she’d ever seen. Pots, pans, and kettles in every size imaginable.
The other door opened to a covered porch with two chairs. A graveled path led from the stairs to…she wasn’t sure where. Only about twenty feet separated the house from dense woods and the path curved away to the right through the woods.
“Oh, good, you’re up,” a lilting voice said. She looked around to find the source and couldn’t see anyone.
“Um…hello?” she answered. “Where are you?”
“Oh, sorry, I always forget.” The air shimmered in front of her and she saw a tiny, jaw-droppingly beautiful woman with dark green hair curling to her waist and brown eyes, dressed in greens and browns. She blended so well with the forest background that if it weren’t for her lighter-brown flesh, she probably wouldn’t have been noticed at all.
“Where am I? What’s happened to me?” she asked.
“Why, you’re where you’re supposed to be – your home!”
“This is not the home I went to bed in last night!” she yelled. “And who the hell are you?”
“Child, come inside and let’s get some tea into you. That should help.”
She resented being called “Child.” She also resented not having her questions answered. Third resentment: she wanted coffee not tea.
The – captor? – glided into the house as if she owned it. In short order, she had pulled a kettle from under the counter, filled it with water, selected a jar from the shelf and crumbled a handful of its contents into the kettle before putting it onto one of the hooks and swinging it over the fire.
“Please answer my questions,” she begged. “I want to know what happened to me.”
She frowned. “Wait until you’ve had some tea. That always calms you when you’ve had a bad night.”
At this, she became even warier. What was it the creature wanted her to drink? There were no herbs she could think of that would induce forgetfulness or obeisance but there were plenty of hallucinogens. Since she never took those, she had no idea what effect they might have on her.
“Sit,” the lady commanded, pointing to the comfortable chair. She obeyed, and was handed a mug of tea just poured from the kettle, the creature pouring herself one immediately after. The unfamiliar woman leaned against one of the chairs at the table, cradling the mug in both hands as the steam caressed her face.
As she sniffed the contents, she looked over the rim and waited for the lady to take the first drink. It smelled like nothing she’d come across…sort of leafy and woody at the same time with an overtone of mint. After the stranger had taken a sip and sighed in contentment, she took her own sip. A combination of frown and astonishment played across her face as the “tea” tasted just like her favorite medium-roast coffee – regardless of how it smelled.
“Okay, I’ve had some of your tea,” she said belligerently. “Answer questions.”
“You are Crone. It is both your name and title. You are a healer. Why you think this is not your home, I do not know, but you have had these episodes before. You have lived here for approximately five years.
“I also do not know why you do not remember me. You call me Lily, and I have been your friend since you moved to my forest.”
She was flabbergasted. She remembered nothing of what Lily had said. Come to think of it, she remembered nothing else except an apartment much larger than this house, with carpeting, electricity, and appliances like a stove, refrigerator, and coffeepot. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t come up with a name other than, “Crone,” an address, occupation, family, nothing.
She gulped her coffee-tasting drink just as she did most mornings. Then more information came to the front of her brain. She knew what was growing in the garden, what herbs were hanging from the beams, and what she did with them.
She remembered that Lily was a genius loci, the spirit of the area. She was old – and strong enough to not only take human form but also converse in human language. They had indeed been friends since Crone moved to the cottage. Her normal form was invisible to human eyes but she had the ability to make herself appear as Crone now saw her.
Crone’s shoulders slumped. “So, you’re telling me I’m crazy.”
Lily laughed. “You say this every time, too. Perhaps you are. But I like you anyway.”
Crone poured another cup of “coffee” and tried to recall more of her life. What memories she’d woken with quickly faded and now all she had was a vague sense of missing something. Everything else was a daily routine of gardening, and making potions and charms. It was an odd dream, Crone decided.
“Do you feel better?” Lily asked.
“Apart from the usual ache of arthritis, yes,” Crone replied.
Lily finished her tea and stood. “Good. I have things to do and so do you. I will see you again another time.” She leaned down, gave Crone a peck on the cheek and disappeared. Literally.
Crone bathed and changed into her cold-weather uniform of jeans and a sweatshirt. After pouring another cup of tea-cum-coffee from the kettle, she turned to a stack of paper on a corner of the table. They were her orders, each written in flourished script, the ink color-coded to the pixie who had delivered it. “A poultice for joint aches,” one read. “Three syrups for a scratchy throat,” said another. “A charm against nightmares,” on yet another. She counted. There were fifteen requests. So, a normal day. Before getting started, she crossed out “poultice” on the one and wrote, “rub.” She knew it would work better and last longer.
She hummed a nameless tune to herself as she pulled ingredients off the now-familiar shelves and set to work. As she poured syrup from one large jar into a smaller bottle, she made a mental reminder to make more…it was getting to be that season and she knew she’d have many requests for something to help sore throats. Eyeing another large jar and its contents, she added “stuffy nose tisane” to her list of things to make up.
About midday, her stomach rumbled and she chided herself. Due to the early morning confusion, she had completely forgotten to start a stew for dinner. Munching on some bread and cheese kept in the cupboard next to the plates and such, she grabbed one of the pots and after filling it with a little water, threw in a large handful of beans, added a jar of diced tomatoes from one of the shelves, sliced a couple of potatoes and an onion and put those into the pot. A couple of bay leaves and a pinch of cumin added a bit of flavor. She covered the pot, hung it from the second hook in the fireplace and pushed it back far enough that it would simmer rather than boil. The potatoes might be a bit mushy by dinnertime, but it would be tasty.
The orders she’d made up that morning had disappeared from the table where she’d placed them. That was one of the beauties of working with pixies – you didn’t have to see people. She had always wondered how such small creatures managed to deliver jars and bottles several times their size but was never able to see. She had even stared at the table for a couple of hours in an effort to catch them at their work. Jars and bottles disappeared with each blink of her eyes. The same happened with her shopping list. Every five days, she left a written list on the table of what she needed – food and herbs she didn’t grow herself, clothing, bottles and jars, paper, ink… Usually when she was in the bathroom, the list disappeared. Several hours or even a day later her needs appeared on the table.