Seasons turned into years. Crone started to feel the passing of those years more acutely. She was slowing down, she knew. It took her longer to get going in the morning, and the garden chores became almost too painful to think of. What had taken her only two weeks to accomplish in the spring took almost twice as long. She soldiered on, knowing it all had to be done. Tom became even more of a blessing. Without any direction, he knew exactly where to knead on her back to relieve the soreness.
Crone estimated she had lived in the cottage almost twenty-five years. She wondered what would become of it, her beloved garden, and Tom, when her days came to an end. Who would make the remedies and charms for the pixies to deliver to their intended recipients? She voiced her concerns to Lily, who told her not to worry about such things – she would ensure everything was taken care of.
Finally, one day, Crone decided she no longer wanted to get out of bed. Lily found her, curled under her quilts.
“I’m tired,” Crone whispered. “But I must keep going, mustn’t I?”
“It’s no longer necessary,” Lily soothed. “Shall I tell you a story?”
“Once upon a time,” Lily began, “there was a community of humans who no longer wished to live in their world. They did not like the fighting, the hectic pace, the politics, or the technology. They longed for a life they had only read about in books – living in harmony with nature and interacting with the magical world they knew was around them but could not see for all the modern interference.
“It took them some time but they found my woods. As you know by now, it is a place of strong magic. What you do not know is that we live in what you might call a magical bubble – humans generally pass by not knowing this area exists. It can only be seen by those who already believe in magic and look for it. Their leader, a man called Jack, petitioned us for permission to live in a large clearing not far from here. In return for promising not to kill any of our trees for their needs, my friends and I decided to give them a chance.
“They built their houses of trees who no longer lived and their spirit had passed beyond, using stone found on a nearby hill when there wasn’t enough wood. They brought some things with them from their old lives – furniture, clothing, things needed for running water, seeds for their gardens, cuttings for fruit trees, and the like. The thing they call electricity was forbidden – it interferes with magic.
“One person was designated to go back to their large city for items they needed but could not make for themselves. To pay for these things, they sold and continue to sell excess crops, honey, beeswax candles, and some other things, like the sickness remedies and charms you make.
“With our help, they re-learned the magic long forgotten by humans – like how to make and maintain a fire without wood. But one of their people did not like living so close by others. She was a healer, like you, and asked if she could have a house farther away. This clearing was already here, so we agreed.
“As time went by, she became more and more of a recluse. Her remedies were needed but she didn’t want to see anyone. Jack managed to set up a system with the pixies who also live in our woods…the same method you use today to receive and deliver your orders.
“That was about one hundred of your years ago. The village still prospers. Each child is given the opportunity to experience life outside our magical bubble when they reach maturity, but most return within a few months.
“The original healer who occupied this house was ready to pass beyond but she did not want to leave the village without a healer. She and I talked about it at length and we finally brought the village leader into the conversation.
“Together, we came up with the idea of finding another woman like the healer – one who knew herbs and remedies and magic, but did not mind living alone.
“Jack went back into the city and after a month, returned with a woman who said she was amenable to taking up the healer’s mantle. She was older, had lived her city life to its fullest, and was ready for something quieter. She had no family to miss her, she said. The original healer passed beyond and the new healer moved in.
“However, after only a month, she realized she missed her life in the city. She wanted all the amenities she had had before – that electricity thing and all the wonders it provides. The village was frantic – how would they find another healer such as her in short order?
“The village leader came to me and we both went to the healer. She recognized the situation, knew she would, within a short time frame, be unhappy in the city again, but didn’t know what to do about it. She knew she couldn’t move back and forth all the time.
“Together, we came up with a solution. There is a plant that grows in abundance in my woods which induces a form of forgetfulness in humans. (The first healer found out the hard way so I have hidden its location.) I volunteered to harvest it, add some magic to both make it palatable to human taste buds and be selective about which memories to cover up, and the healer would drink it every morning. It’s not perfect, as you have discovered over the years, but does have the desired effect.
“To further ensure no problems, the healer, called Janet, determined she had to get rid of her name. She thought hearing it on a regular basis would bring back memories she didn’t want. So, we decided to call her, “Crone.” She said that at her age, that’s what she was, after all.
“And so, the position of healer became “Crone.” You are the fifth to be called such. As each Crone is ready to pass beyond, the village leader finds another woman with knowledge of herbs and magic, and who wishes to live as you do. It, apparently, isn’t a difficult thing to do. There are many older woman out in the wider world who are, for whatever reason, unhappy living that way.
“Each is told of the problems encountered by their predecessors and the solution. Each has agreed, just as you did all those years ago.
“And so, Crone, that is my story. It is part of yours, as well.”
Crone nodded. The imaginings of living in another place and time that cropped up once in a while now made sense.
“It is my time, I know,” she told Lily. “Is there a way for me to remember my life before? I think I would like to, one last time.”
Lily regarded her, then nodded once. She placed her hand on the left side of Crone’s temple, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Within a couple of minutes, images flooded Crone’s mind: the name Alice, a house in the suburbs with a large garden, a husband named Jim who worked too long hours, the husband’s female colleague, divorce, a move to an apartment in the heart of the city, the regret of no children, three good friends who each died within five years of each other of various forms of cancer.
Crone absorbed all these memories, then reflected back on her years living in the cottage. These last had been definitely the best, she decided. But one final question remained. “Who is Tom?” she asked. “Cats don’t normally live that long.”
Lily smiled. Tom stood from his spot at Crone’s feet, arched his back and stretched, then started to sparkle. Within the glitter, a different form took shape – that of a small humanoid with cat’s eyes and pointy ears.
When the transformation was complete, Tom spoke. “My name is unpronounceable in your tongue, so Tom is easiest. I am a hobgoblin. I’d been watching you for years and liked you. When Lily suggested I be your companion rather than just watching from afar, we spoke with the man in the village who goes into the city as to what sort would be appropriate. He suggested a cat, so a cat I became.
“I will miss you, Crone. You, unlike many of your sort, have a kind heart.” Tom shimmered and became a cat once more, settling not at her feet but at her side.
Crone stroked Tom’s silky fur. “I am content,” she told Lily. “I hope my successor is, too.”
She continued to pet Tom and the movements slowed. Her eyes closed, her hand stopped and soon, so did she.
Lily sighed. “She was one of the best, wasn’t she?” Tom shimmered into his normal form once more. “Yes, she was.”
Together, they raised their hands, palms toward the sky. Crone’s form became insubstantial, then broke into a thousand pieces of light that floated on the air currents. The bedroom window opened and Lily and Tom watched as the sparkling essence of Crone sped out and up, finally becoming invisible as it merged with the rest of the Universe.