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The thing about Mugwhah, as much as I love her, is that none of her magic is reversible. In folk tales, when a person is changed into something they can often be changed back. But, as Mugwhah says, every transformative process is a singular thing. You have a knife, so you can transform a Blue Guava by cutting it. But what happens when you’re asked to transform it again? Well, you can only cut it some more, into smaller pieces. It is the same, Mugwhah reassures me, with the magic witches use. So, you can probably tell why I’m somewhat horrified by the fact that my right leg is now bigger than my left leg.
I lay back on the stone table, pressing my chin against my chest so I can see the ridiculous limb. My face must be a picture, as a potent mix of feelings well up inside: a mixture of disbelief, arousal and wonder.My hosen dangle limply off the swollen right foot. The plate with the enchanted berries still rests on my stomach – thankfully I only ate one.
“What do we do now?” I ask Mugwhah.
“Isn’t it what you wanted, to be transformed by a witch. To me mine play with? I think it’s beautiful” She smiles nervously, her wide face belies a series of questions about our trust in one another, our expectations.
What should I do next?
Stay with Mugwhah and allow her to continue to practice magic on me ?
Return to my family and tell them what has happened?
Leave to find other magical practitioners who might return me to normal?
Despite the fact that I now have one unusually large leg, I decide to stay with Mugwhah. I remind myself that I come from a noble family and have learnt from a young age to me methodical in testing beliefs. Branded as a witch, Mugwhah is feared by the people who work my father’s land, she is thought to conspire with the devil and such superstition is distracting for the peasants.
As a noble I am good at reminding yourself of such things because I often have to speak my thoughts aloud around the banquet table. However, another feeling has long started to insinuate itself as a thought. I crave to be with someone who might have power over me and be able to transform me. I tire of my duties and I tire of parading my gender like a garish peacock.
Mugwhah looks at me, her dark skin and open face reflect the warm glow from the stove. She still isn’t sure if I will stay or not. But I have deduced two things while being in her company. Firstly, she is good humoured and gentle and has no pact with the devil. I saw this not only in the way she greeted a stranger, offering me food and drink, but also from watching her for some time from a hidden position – how kindly she was with her animals, how carefully she tended her garden. Secondly, she does possess real powers that exceed any normal logic.
As she continues to search my face for a sign of my next move I decide that I must make a commitment to her.
“I’m ready now to try the next of your magical foods”
She smiles, “Wonderful. This time I shall let you choose.”
The first of the three items offered are three berries, the like of which you’ve never seen before
The second is an earth tablet which Mugwhah says she will mix with Oxymel, a drink of milk, honey and herbs
The last is to share Mughah’s fluids, through a process that remains unclear
“Earth tablets, or terra sigillata, are ancient remedies. The most coveted were drawn from the Lemnos, a holy Greek island. Earth from this area had a distinct red colour – the Greeks used to stamp it with symbols pertaining to the Gods.” Mugwhah says this with a wry smile as she produces hard little lozenges fitting the description, stamped with the likeness of a goat, “The goat stands for Artemis.”
“Artemis was a goddess who protected wild animals. She also protected women.”
As she begins to crush the pastille in a pestle and mortar she looks at me intently. She stares so that I feel obliged to say, “Why do you look at me so?”
“That’s why you are here is it not, you might not understand it as such, but you are drawn to Artemis? You are drawn to the untamed, and you seek to protect something that you do not yet understand but that you see in me and other women. What is it that you have done but surrender yourself. Because you do not even understand enough to ask me what you want.”
My noble training makes it hard to admit to ‘submission’, but in principle I know Mugwhah is right. There is something so beautiful and expansive in giving myself over to these new feelings – they fly like birds from the imprisonment of court life. How perceptive Mugwhah is, to know I crave something but don’t know what it is. But being here is bliss.
Mixed with the milk and honey, the medicine is a sweet and mineral smelling, creamy emulsion; it sticks to my throat as I swallow it.
The fire light is the first thing I notice, it doubles and blurs and appears closer and more distant. The crackling of the twigs slow down to become heavy explosions. I hear the hammering of my heart. Loath, the great Castle Farrier, couldn’t make such a racket. I feel exhilarated and look over to Mugwhah. To my surprise she looks terrified, “It’s only my heart!” I shout over the roar.
But it isn’t just my heart. There is a chanting from outside, the beating of a drum. And disorientated I stagger to the curtains that hang in Mugwhah’s doorway and fall through to land in the dirt. When I find strength to raise my head I find myself confronted by an angry mob of peasants, with torches and pitch forks. In a moment I also spy my father, accompanied by a small squad of archers and swordsmen.
“By God’s name William, what hath she done to thee?” My father’s voice taunts me. I can see the calculating logic of what he has done, using the ruse of a witch hunt to help coral the workers, to give them a mixed sense of fear and excitement to make their minds en-flamed and focused on an act of his willing . It is a calculating logic I have been indoctrinated with from childhood, a logic I have come to despise.
Mugwhah is vulnerable. Despite her powers she cannot repel this mob. I find myself sweating and crying, unable to speak or stand. The potion I drank is powerful – I remember Mugwhah’s words once I had swallowed it – it’s effect will be profound.
The story will become…
An abstract movement of forms and colours
A thriller set in the contemporary world
A TV programme watched by characters who have yet to be introduced
As the credits role in, Susan presses her finger tips into her neck and pushes her lips up, ceremoniously deliberating ‘Mugwhah’. She’s not sure if she has enjoyed it, and more-over she’s not sure what the politics of the programme are. Does it have any critical potential? Its kitsch deployment of medieval character types, its mix of erotica and a vague feminism certainly make it a unique addition to the network – but will it survive beyond the three pilot episodes?
Any story that utilises fantasy or science fiction to explore the human condition appeals to Susan, but her interest in this case is not purely personal. She knows the writer of the show and he has asked her for some input. As he’s technically a ‘family friend’ and can pay her a decent commission she said she was willing to look at it.
Susan’s house, overlooking Upper Arrow Lake, is a testament to her distinguished career as a writer. As she enters the main room from the kitchen, where she has her only television set, she surveys a veritable library of challenging literature and academic tomes. In the centre of this chamber of learning a single chair looks out over the lake.
Susan often studies the chair and its surrounding before sitting . She is interested in what they say about her, or more precisely what it does to her. Sitting in the chair she becomes its appendage, an organ emblazoned by the refracted blue light from the lake absorbing the content of various books. This activity seems to her mostly immaterial, ghostly, and when she’s out of the room she suspects the chair and books of being silently unconscious. Yet how they coalescence within the invisible networks of her being. At this moment, against the farcical ultra-violet timbre of Mugwhah, this all seems very sombre, austere and lacking playfulness.
“These thoughts are cold”, Susan says outloud to herself, perhaps responding to another chain of thoughts. And in order to thaw her spirit she pictures the coming weekend when the house will be invaded by her daughter and grand children. A buffet will be prepared for their arrival, and over the autumnal feast of cured meats, roasted butternut squash and sweet potato, salads and hot chocolate, the frisson of reunion will envelope everyone: tangled, broken, beautiful conversations. Alice will be tired but relieved after the 8 hour drive from Vancouver with the two girls, and then at some point she will be surprised to hear that her mother has agreed to work with Alexis, her ex-husband, on a bizarre TV programme called ‘Mugwhah’.
What would you like the story to focus on next?
The next episode of Mugwhah
Susan busied her hands finessing the pastry top of the apple pie, moulding special little shapes with her fingers for the two girls. Lea had always liked cats, Jade birds. Both were teenagers now, but this practice had passed into tradition and would be missed if it was neglected. Every so often Susan paused to look out of the window, trying to catch glimpses of the internal conversation she had had the night before – trying to figure out Mugwhah.
Alice, Susan’s daughter, and the girls were due any minute. And despite her preoccupation with working out how she might be able to write for an ailing TV programme, Susan still felt rushes of excitement in anticipation of their arrival.
By her reckoning Mugwhah had yet to really surface as a character in the show, thus far written by her daughter’s ex-husband Alexis; the eponymous witch had true magical powers, but no sense of inner life to give her depth. The three pilot episodes had instead attended to the desires of the narrator, a male courtier character and son of a manipulative lord. In the last episode his name had been revealed to be William, who, judging by his interior monologue, the dulcet voice-over, was in search of some kind of enlightenment through the transformative power of Mugwhah’s magic. In Alexis’ lurid imagination, a kind of feminist awakening in William had been infused with the trappings of sadomasochistic fantasy. Although William was played by a handsome young Canadian actor, Susan couldn’t help but see Alexis’ himself in that cheap medieval costume, with all his frustrating, ingratiating mannerisms.
As Susan closed the oven door the sound of gravel shuffling under car wheels announced her family’s imminent arrival. She looked up to see headlights casting around the leafy mulch of the driveway. Opening the kitchen door with a pair of oven gloves still in her hand, she kicked open the porch door and was hit by the sudden, almost unreal, coldness of the air. But, as she could see Alice and Lea in the front of the car, she bit back the discomfort and beamed at them, warmly anticipating the hugs and greetings.
As it turned out, Jade had been sick on the journey and so hugs had been postponed and clothes were carried off to be washed. Greetings took place with Jade – wrapped in a thick yellow blanket and sitting in the single chair in Susan’s study – had warmed up after a shower. The three older ones stood around her, slurping beef and cabbage stew from mugs, rather than at the table in the kitchen. Alice was in some ways relieved to be standing after being in the car for over nine hours.
“Sorry about all that,” Alice conveyed over of matter-of-factly, close enough for Susan to hear but not to embarrass Jade further.
“Ha”, Susan said aloud, “well it adds to the fun of life doesn’t it”. Jade burrowed into the blanket and forced a smile. “There are lots of other salads, stuffed mushrooms, nuts, fruit if you want anything else. Otherwise it can wait until tomorrow, you must be tied after such a long drive, and we’ll just have a big piece of apple pie with some of Victoria Roy’s own vanilla ice-cream.”
It was a faultless plan, but before the tired troupe could move back to the warmth of the kitchen, the look on Jade’s face stopped them in their tracks.
“What it is Jade, you look like you’ve seen a ghost?”
What turn should the story take now?
Jade has seen a spectre resembling Mugwhah?
The world of Susan, Alice, Jade and Lea suddenly seems to be an effect of the earth tablet William ate?
It is nothing; the realism of the story world is maintained for now and Susan continues to contemplate Mugwhah?
I find myself staring at two pairs of boots. I recognise them immediately as being those of Ulric and Fendrel. Ulric’s are a soft black leather with a wide laced front, snaking to wicked points at the toes. They suggest a kind of polite malevolence. Fendrel’s are sturdier, with different coloured leather overlays tightly bound to solid brass lace studs at the sides. These boots do not suffer fools gladly; they have grace and poise but reject the idea of unconditional amity.
I suspect both men of having some contempt for me. They resent me, consider me good for nothing; to them I am but the spoilt son of a powerful man. They despise my lack of interest in military, political or mercantile affairs; they stifle titters when I speak of the things of the soul and nature.
I could never tell them of my vision under the influence of the drug. I’m not sure I could explain it even to a close confidant. A box with light emitted from it showing images from my life; an older woman in strange clothes sitting contemplating it all. What did it mean?
I raise my head which makes the two men start. I couldn’t swear to it, but I believe I see Ulric quickly put something in his pouch.
Fendrel offers me his hand, an act that only seems to serve to highlight my fallen grace. Nevertheless, I am weakened and readily accept it. I rise unsteadily to my feet. I’m covered in mud and standing reminds me that I still have one disproportionate leg. Only the three of us remain outside Mugwhah’s humble cottage. I’m desperate to find out if the witch is still alive. But I know I must be careful and so I ask about my father first.
“Where is my father?”
“He’s headed to the castle to prepare for tomorrow’s festivities,” Fendrel answers in his gruff voice, dropping the common courtesies he would observe in from of Lord Bohun, my father.
“Festivities?” I say breathlessly.
“Well, your rescue from the clutches of one of the devil’s followers is surely something worth celebrating.” Ulric smiles; could they know of my affection for Mugwhah and therefore delight in my current situation?
“Indeed.” I notice the two glancing at my large, swollen leg. This will no doubt provide them with endless amusement. Then in a more sinister turn of thought I wonder what it was that Ulric put in his pocket. My unease is hard to place, but I realise it stems from the fact that I am alone with two guardians who might gain a great deal from my demise. And to think they had me at their mercy while I lay unconscious.