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The Witch's Table by Amy Trent


The old woman, Nonna, made a habit of inspecting her garden daily. Yes, she hired laborers to do this sort of thing, but the subtleties too often escaped these simple peasants. Like so many tender spring plants, the men required vigilance. No matter. The regular exercise and morning air were good for Nonna, kept her mind sharp, her figure lithe.

 

“The radishes are ready for harvesting and re-sowing,” she commented to the lad who’d just come trotting up the hillside.

 

“They could stand another day or two in the ground. They’ll be bigger that way.”

 

“But the flavor will be spoiled. Harvest them now.”

 

“As you wish, Signora Nonna.”

 

Everyone from the township below, and the ramshackle sprawl on the hillside, called her that. Signora Nonna. Madam grandmother. Not that she was anyone’s grandmother, sadly. She supposed however that the name was preferable to what other towns had called her. Grandma Witch. Grandmère sorcière. Großmutter Hexe. She understood the witch part, but why the grandma? Were the signs of her 400 plus years really showing?

 

She paused in front of the water garden. She could peer over the edge and take a peek at her reflection in the still water. It wouldn’t be as satisfying as holding a looking glass up to her face, but then she’d at least know what she was dealing with.

 

No! No, that way led to poison apples and bubbling cauldrons. Vanity was too dangerous for any witch. She’d broken all the looking glasses in her manor house the day she arrived fifty years ago. Traded her silver for fine porcelain and hammered gold. Sworn off the enchantments that kept her skin supple, her breasts lifted, her eyes bright. Nonna was a good witch. She watched over the township and kept the rabble in the forest at bay, eschewed the luxuries that all witches are folly to, except for one.

 

Gastronomie.

 

The secret to living a life full of joy and purpose was not found in accruing power, creating unsurpassed wealth, beauty, or renown. It was in fine dining. Kings of men would realize their poverty were they ever to dine at Nonna’s table.

 

But they never were. Nonna kept to herself. Lonely as it was, it was safer that way. Really. 

 

“Harvest is not determined based on the size of the fruit, but on the height of its flavor.” Something the hungry masses could not grasp.

 

Yes, there were pleasures in this world but none of them compared to pairing a fresh slice of goat’s cheese with a sun warmed cucumber, flavored with basil and pressed rosemary. Except of course all the aforementioned garnished with pink rock salt from lands far away.

 

Nonna stooped to snap a spring pea from its vine. “Any word about the cargo I am expecting at the port?” she asked the lad. 

 

“Another couple of days, Signora Nonna.”

 

Nonna sighed. Something else would have to be done until the salt arrived. She picked a warty cucumber and shuffled towards her herb garden. Perhaps this was all for the best. The basil was still coming in. It’d be another day before she could harvest any, and another two weeks before she would have enough for pestos and gelatos. The mint was doing well.

 

“Excellent,” Nonna pulled a sprig and rubbed it in her hands. “I’ve been hankering for a mint chutney and braised lamb dinner.”

 

The sage, fennel, tarragon all were growing beautifully, and then she saw it.

 

Her flat leaf parsley was in shambles. 

 

“Rabbits!” 

 

Ever since she lured a family of them in, two late summers ago, letting them gorge on chestnuts until the nutty flavor infused every muscle, bone and sinew, she’d not been free of them. And she had enjoyed all the rabbit stew she could stomach.

 

“The rabbits have wormed their way into the garden again,” Nonna declared as she inspected the rows of endive for more damage. Thankfully there was none.

 

“Impossible,” the lad said. He wasn’t a lad. He was, in fact, an old man. But that was the trouble with being 438 years old. Everyone looked like a child in comparison. “We had half the village out last fall digging the wire fences down past the roots. I’ve had the falconers up here weekly. Your beast of a cat has seen to the rest. There hasn’t been a rabbit on this hill since last summer.”

 

“My parsley begs to differ.”

 

“Master gardener!” A lad, a real one with sweat glistening on his forehead despite the cool morning air, came trundling up the hill. “Sir, we found this. Near the wall.”

 

“Give it here,” Nonna demanded.

 

The lad bowed and handed over a scrap of coarse blue cloth.  

 

The master gardener pushed up the brim of his straw hat. “A raven could have dropped it.”

 

“Or my rabbit could be wearing trousers,” Nonna said.

 

“I’ll arrange a night watch.”

 

“Arrange for the potatoes and squashes from the root cellar to be left outside my garden wall instead. That should keep this rabbit out.”

 

But it didn’t. The next morning, more of the parsley was gone. There was hardly any of it left after the third night.

 

The gardeners were profusely apologetic. The master gardener volunteered himself to keep watch over the plant, but Nonna wasn’t about to let the last of her secret ingredient for tabbouleh in the hands of men who clearly didn’t understand its value.

 

She herself waited that night as the rabbit jumped the fence. The man was painfully thin and unfortunately dirty. He headed straight for the herb garden and pulled the parsley up by the roots.

 

“Desist this instant, rabbit! Unless you wish for long ears and fluffy tail.” She could do it too, transform this man, this thief, into the actual animal. But what use had Nonna for a skinny rabbit?

 

The man screamed in terror. “Mercy, majka vjestica!”

 

Majka, not baka, or old mother, or any other signifier of age. Well. Nonna would hear what this fellow had to say. “What is the meaning of this?”

 

“Please. My wife. She’s sick with child. She can’t eat. She loses weight even as her belly swells. Her milk for the others is all but gone.”

 

“Others?”

 

“Twin boys and their older brother.”

 

“Their ages, Signor.”

 

The man gave them in months as opposed to years.

 

“Gracious.” They really were rabbits, copulating and reproducing at that rate. “Parsley can be had in town every market day. Why steal mine?”

 

“We’ve no money. Even if we did, my wife can’t tend the children in her condition. It’s only after I get the last of them to sleep that I can leave our cottage, forage for food.”

 

“There is a difference between foraging and stealing.”

 

His nose twitched nervously, exactly like a rabbit’s.

 

 “Her people should be conscripted, pressed into service,” Nonna said.

 

“We have no people.”

 

“Hire people.”

 

“With no money and no trade?” Rabbits were haughty creatures.

 

Nonna knew she shouldn’t ask. The less she spoke the better, but Signor Rabbit was eager to divest himself of the details.

 

“My wife made lace before she became ill, and I’d sell it on market days. She cannot make lace now.”

 

“Learn yourself.”

 

“I’ve tried. But I don’t have the skill, and I don’t have the time. My family has already spent a winter on next to nothing. They can’t survive a spring the same way.”

 

“The squashes, the pumpkins.” They had all disappeared outside her garden wall.

 

“Yes, I fed the children and myself, but my wife couldn’t keep them down. Not after the parsley. It’s all she’s wanted since that first night. What was I to do?”

 

Haughty and helpless. Nonna picked a slug off the eggplant vine. “Your cottage is where exactly?”

 

The rabbit pointed to the steepest part of the hillside behind her garden wall. Through a dense tangle of trees, she could almost spy a miserable little wooden shack.

 

Nonna sighed. Served her right for settling on the unfashionable side of the township. “Then you and I are neighbors, Signor Rabbit. You and your warren may come to my gardens as often as you have need. There is enough to share. In time perhaps your wife might make me a nice pair of lace sleeves.”

 

The rabbit’s throat warbled and his lips trembled.

 

“What now?”

 

“We can’t. The bobbins and threads were traded for milk. We have no means, none, of repaying you.” The man was in tears, lying in the spring mud. “I love my wife. I did this to her. I did this to the mother of my sons. Uprooted us from kin, took our chances on a port town. More business, I argued. More profits. Foolish. Stupid. For what? Another baby that was never supposed to happen? A mistake as surely as this night is miserable. We have enough babies. And that is all we have. Nothing more. No food. No clothes. Just the promise that if my wife should survive her child bed, there will be another mouth that we cannot feed.”

 

This was a problem then of not just a sick and starving mother, but children that could not be provided for. A family that had lost its livelihood, and a babe that was above all unwanted. It was as the rabbit said, even if this little family weathered the storm, they’d still have an additional mouth that could not be fed. A whiny runt they had already begun to resent.

 

It would of course be a girl.

 

“Your wife. She is close to her confinement?”

 

“She is in her confinement.”

 

Then the baby was most assuredly coming. No herbs on Nonna’s part could change that. “I see. We shall make a bargain, Signor Rabbit. You will frequent my garden daily, taking all the supplies you have need of, after which you will escort me to your cottage where I will meet your family and wife. There may be other needs that you are blind to.” New bobbins and thread for lace making, naturally, and tinctures the poor woman could take to prevent this unfortunate situation from ever happening again.

 

“But I am already in your debt!” Signor Rabbit wailed.

 

“I demand the unborn child as payment for my kindness.” There was no authority in Nonna’s voice then. Only the echo of 400 years lived without anyone to share the treasures of her table. “The babe may reside with your wife for however long she finds comfortable.” A loophole that the mother could exploit indefinitely, if she so wished. “When your wife is ready, bring the child to me. I will raise it as my own.”

 

“You offer us deliverance. Thank you, mother witch. Thank you!” The rabbit, his arms full of vegetables, scurried over the wall.

 

Nonna sighed. She knew what would happen. The baby would be handed off with the stub of the mother’s cord still attached to its belly. The rabbits would after another season or two of her kindness, move down into the town, buy a beautiful shop for selling their lace with rooms above for living. They’d never again think of the child. But the town would. In time, Nonna’s charity would be twisted into villainy.  Because this is what people did. They told stories that always shaded witches as monsters. The townsfolk would say she stole the child, locked her away behind garden walls, kept her from her people, until of course one brave young man fell in love and promised her a better life filled with adventure and mystery--rabbit warrens and sold bobbins.

 

But as much as Nonna tried to feel sullen about the whole affair, her lips–heavily wrinkled and creased as they were–tugged upward into a smile. A daughter and a family, well warren, of rabbits to share her table for a season. She had better harvest the rest of the remaining parsley. She would be doubling her tabbouleh recipe for the foreseeable future.    



Amy Trent never met a cookie she didn’t instalove and immediately eat. Seriously. She wrote a song about it. Cookies aside, Amy loves to escape into fairy tales and happily-ever-afters. She delights in transforming obscure folklore into fluffy, feel-good novels. Head to her website, amytrent.com, for more info!


Image by Arthur Rackham.

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2 Comments


Chantal Sy
Chantal Sy
May 18

I want this story to continue! I want to hear her side of the story! I want to know that this woman spoils the parsley verison of Rapunzel with copious amounts of gelato!

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Leona Fisher
Leona Fisher
May 18

The best retelling of Rapunzel I’ve ever read! Brava!

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