Something Sweet

So, I’m writing a series of short stories/ fairy tales, that are quiet, soft, and happy. Here’s part of the first one, “The Little House on Kitten Paws.” The end of the excerpt is not the end of the story.

Es war einmal a young girl named Gretchen. She lived with her mother and father in a snug wooden house at the edge of the village, where the fields and forest blended one into another. A painting of flowers and vines decorated the side of the bright white house. Other houses boasted paintings of animals, or geometric designs, also in bright colors. Like the other village houses, a good vegetable and herb garden grew behind the house, away from the path through the village.

Gretchen’s father owned a team of horses, Hansi and Stein, and a fine wagon that carried wood and grain and other things for people in the village. He’d come from “away,” perhaps as far as two towns distance. Gretchen’s mother had ten generations in the village burying ground. Gretchen took after her mother—plain of face but skilled with her hands, and blessed with moon-colored hair that shimmered white-blonde. She spun wool, making both fine thread and sturdy yard for the weavers. She knitted and embroidered. The family’s garden prospered despite being so close to the cool forest, but not so well that the other village women envied them.

Gretchen went into the forest with her mother and other women to gather berries, nuts, and herbs. Her mother knew more about the plants of the woods than did other women, as had her mother. They picked nettle tops and dock leaves, blackberries and tart gooseberries, purple-hued foxglove for making calming teas, chamomile, and other things. Some of the women knew mushroom lore, and trimmed the large, tan, flat mushrooms that grew like little shelves from some trees. Everyone knew that puff-balls from the pasture carried the goodness of the sun. Gretchen and her mother traded their wild herbs for mushrooms and garden herbs.

One midsummer day, when she was ten years old, Gretchen and her mother went into the forest without the other women and girls. “You are old enough to see the great treasure of the woods,” her mother told her. They left the path to the berry bushes and followed an older, narrow trail into the cool shadows of the deep forest. The underbrush shrank as the trees loomed tall. Birds called, and puddles of sunlight glowed here and there, where the thick leaves permitted it. After a time, they came to a clearing lush with sweet-herbs and grass. The summer sun poured blessings down from above, warming the air. Gretchen heard a cheerful, quiet babble of flowing water. “There,” her mother whispered. “What do you see?”

Gretchen leaned forward, looking at a spot in some tan-gold rocks where light danced on water. “A spring, Mama?”

“Yes.” Her mother led her across the grass and they stepped carefully on two stones in a small creek. “This is a sweet spring. Nothing bad may grow here, and the water is safe, no matter how hard it rains or storms. A saint blessed this spring, and the clearing around it.”

Gretchen stared at the herbs and flowers, and at the clear water. Cresses waved gently in the stream, green and soft, and a little silver fish flashed across the water, then hid once more. “Which saint, Mama?”

“No one knows, it was so long ago, before the village grew. Nothing bad can stay here, Gretchen. Anything that grows is safe,” her mother repeated, pointing to unfamiliar red berries growing among the blades of grass.

“Yes, Mama.”

“Do not speak of this to the others. It is not a secret, but it doesn’t belong to the village.” Her mother gestured to the forest around them. “It belongs to the woods, and the saints. We may come here to visit, but not to stay.”

[SNIP. Things happen, and Gretchen, now 15, leaves home to seek her fortune]

The next morning, before the sun had begun to fade the morning star, Gretchen gathered her warmest things and fled to the forest, trusting her mother’s words. A few birds chirped as she walked with hesitant steps along the narrow path. The darkness hid the big stump and other familiar guides. A heavy “whunf” came from between the trees to her left and she sped her steps as much as she dared in the near-darkness. The trees hid the false dawn and stars. An owl hooted three times, and Gretchen whispered the charm against evil spirits. A few threads of mist—pale wisps like lost spirits—rose between the trees.

Slowly, as the sun drew closer to the unseen edge of the world, Gretchen saw trees and bushes. A faint shimmer of silver coated some of the big leaves. “The dew,” she whispered, and nodded. That was it. The forest smelled as it always had, both full of life and a little cold. Spring’s warmth always came late to the deep woods.

Soon, the trail reached the clearing and the spring. Gretchen set her bundle down at the edge of the sunny verdure, then took a drink from the stream. The water tasted sweet and soothed her stomach. A bit of color in the damp grass caught her eye, and she ate a few of the little white berries. Her hunger eased. “Thank you,” she told the grass and water, then returned to the edge of the clearing. Now what should she do? The warm sun took away the soreness in her shoulders and back. Soft bird chirps and the music of the spring made her sleepy, and she lay down, her head on her bundle. “I’ll just rest a moment.”

Footsteps, soft and steady, woke her. She opened her eyes to find a house sitting in the meadow! Gretchen blinked. No, not sitting, standing. Soft paws like a kitten’s feet grew from each corner of the little building. Cheerful red shutters and golden walls seemed to welcome her. Moss grew here and there on the roof, making fur-like stripes. The house stopped at the spring, then walked back into the grass. It settled down like a cat, front paws curled under as it sat in the sun. Gretchen smiled. It couldn’t hurt her. She stood, stretched, and dared to come a little closer. “Hello?” She said, quietly, one hand out as she would approach a strange cat.

The red-painted door opened, and the little house on kitten feet tipped toward her, making it easier for her to enter. She returned to her bundle, picked it up, and dared to step inside. “Oh!” A cozy sight met her eyes. A good, snug wood stove all clean and white sat beside cupboards of dishes and jars with flour and other things. A small bed tucked into a corner, near two chairs and a table. Spinning things waited under one of the windows, and a snug pantry waited near the cooking area. She looked around, then went back out and asked, “May I stay?”

The house trembled a little, and she heard a soft rumbling sort of sound. It purred! Gretchen petted the wooden wall, then returned to the house and put her things in the proper places. She needed wood, though. Gretchen crossed the clearing and gathered wood from the forest, away from the blessed meadow, and brought it back to the house. She lit a small fire in the stove. The rumble grew louder, and she felt the house sway a little, as if the paws made kneaded the ground like a happy cat. The swaying soothed Gretchen’s fears. She slept well that night in the little bed.

Come the next morning, the house had moved to a different place in the woods. Gretchen went out and gathered fruit and some early nuts, as well as herbs. She found fresh water and filled two buckets. Then she swept the little house. It wiggled, as if the broom tickled it. Then she swept the walls outside. The house purred, content.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

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