looked more important than usual on the morning she explained the Clock Plant
to Milton. Today, instead of a robe, she wore a tough-looking hooded cloak the color of old
dirt. Sounds of rattling metal and stone
escaped the bag over her shoulder. The Clock
Plant, red-leafed and half a foot tall, grew in a small clay pot on the kitchen
live exactly three weeks without water," the Witch said. "Don't play with its soil.
Don't touch its leaves; I know how you like leaves."
the plant dies, that means I didn't come back to take care of it. Okay?
Which means something went wrong, which means you need to come find me
right away at the Place Without Air. Can
you do that?"
nodded. He was skilled at caring for all
the Witch's plants--the little trees, the many-toothed vines, even the ferns.
The Witch left on foot for the mountain range a long way East. Through the sand-frosted front window Milton watched as
air rippled in her wake.
sounded like a long time.
Once, Milton had waited a day for the Witch to make him a new eye,
because he'd lost his old one outside somewhere. That had taken a long time. In his impatience, he had stolen a handful of
buttons from the Witch and stuffed those where his eye had been (they didn't work). He threw them outside so they wouldn't be
even been alive three weeks? He
couldn't remember. Three weeks sounded
like a long time.
watered the Clock Plant every day, from the brick well behind the house. That was what you did with plants: you
watered them. After a time, the plant
grew into a small, spindly-looking tree with flaking bark and a mossy, waxy
smell. Milton moved it outside near the
walkway, where its roots bored through the clay pot and into the
ground. The tree grew many leaves. Milton liked that.
the tree bore were also enormous--the size of Milton's head--but they were
composed almost totally of tiny black seeds.
He left the fruits where they fell. After a time the
house was surrounded by many trees in different stages of growth. He watered them all.
house fell over. From then on Milton
lived outside. It was fine; he had
plenty of shade. Greenery curled up
between the house's splintered boards and pieces of brick.
well dried up. Milton lowered himself to
its bottom and found only a layer of coarse white dust. Without water, the trees died. The carpet of fallen leaves was knee-deep.
when Milton remembered.
wasn't such a long time after all, if you kept busy.
for the journey, Milton stuffed his abdomen with dried Clock Tree
fruit. It didn't taste very good, and
its seeds collected on Milton's tongue, but food was food, and you were
supposed to eat while you journeyed.
to Milton that he had become very ragged. Both eyes were gone now, and there were holes in his
knees also. He couldn't remember where
he'd thrown the buttons, so he just went without eyes.
He could see the mountains in the distance after emerging from the tree
thicket. He couldn't tell how far away
they were, only that they were farther than any place he'd ever been. He'd once overheard the Witch telling a
visiting many-armed creature about traveling long distances. He followed the sun when it was up and waited
for it to come back when it wasn't. He
crossed many fields.
noticed them first. There were three of
them, all on foot, moving slowly some distance away. Near dusk
they approached him even though he was standing as still as he could.
carried bags and wore dirty-looking animal furs, some of which still had the
faces: foxes, rabbits, cats. Milton
didn't want these people to touch him.
One of them stepped forward. He had long hair
and smelled like lard.
this ugly thing?" Longhair said.
idea of a joke, I guess," a second man said, and laughed in a happy
voice. He was big and he had a patchy
beard threaded with gray. "These
country bumpkins sure do some strange things with their time, don't they? From far away it looks like a real
thought the people seemed friendly enough, so he offered them a fruit.
jumped back the farthest.
the fruit back in his abdomen. He
couldn't blame Longhair; it was very old fruit. He pointed toward the mountains.
said Patchybeard. "It's all
true. It’s the Great Witch's doll."
person, a short thin woman with big eyes, came up to Milton and touched
his face. "She's supposed to have
lived somewhere in the Clock Tree Thicket a long time ago. It makes sense."
pointed again. Now, shrouded in clouds
and the dusk's yellow light, the mountains looked very big.
built a fire with sticks. Wide-winged bugs fluttered over the fire, embers floating between them.
using tents, the people emptied their bags on the ground and wrapped themselves
in those. At first they tried to include
Milton in their conversations, but Milton had a hard time talking, so they talked to one another instead while Milton listened.
fur-traders whose business often took them over the mountains. Bigeye explained that they knew exactly
where to find the Place Without Air because, still, the Witch waited there,
having mistakenly transformed herself into a tree. Milton thought that was nice. He thought the people were nice too. Of the three, Bigeye was the smartest,
Patchybeard the strongest, and Longhair the longest-haired.
produced a small block of hard brown paste and pressed it whole into the ashes
once the fire had burned down to smoldering.
Slow fingers of blue smoke rose and curled. The people spent a little while watching Milton
chew on pieces of rabbit meat before they went to sleep. Milton didn't sleep.
Next morning everyone shared a breakfast of lizard eggs and small green berries,
which Patchybeard boiled all at once in a hollowed-out rock he carried.
They didn't pass any houses; nobody lived
near the Witch. The ground was uniformly
flat and half-dead in all directions, dotted with crooked brown leaf-fans and ugly
grass. A thin haze of moisture moved
across the sky and the sun pressed down.
The mountains looked closer now.
came within sight of them a few times that afternoon; through dusk they turned, moved parallel to the mountains. They seemed to move very
carry a lot of goods through here," Patchybeard said, sliding a large
dagger back into his boot.
Without Air's mountain rose up gently half an hour's walk away. It had looked much steeper from a distance. The moon was full and bright, and shadows collected under the bigger rocks, and inside the shadows, things moved.
rolled over them from the slopes. Smoke from the fire bloomed, carrying a
smell like the heat after a big rain.
Patchybeard tossed a brown paste-brick into the fire; the smoke turned blue.
started singing first. Milton had heard
the Witch sing once or twice, but the Witch disliked singing as it tended to
attract many cockroaches.
Witch upon the mountain
the sky does chill
blackened heart, the twisted leaves;
the hand of
straw will pluck-
She kept time by slapping
her thighs (Longhair watched this with some interest), and Milton sang too,
but it sounded like rustling hay.
us about the Great Witch," Patchybeard said through a smile.
stood up and extended his arms as high as he could.
was tall," said Longhair.
his head and extended both arms from his sides.
"Fat," said Longhair.
shook his head again. He sat on the
ground and stared at the mountains.
was important," Bigeye said. Bigeye understood him best.
decided it would be best to sleep in shifts from then on. Milton stood off to the side while they
unpacked their bags and put out the fire. When they slept, they slept with their knives out.
woke Bigeye up a little while before the end of his watch. She got up mumbling and they went together
behind a big rock a little ways off.
Milton wondered what they were looking for back there. After a few minutes they came back out
empty-handed. Bigeye did not look at
Milton but Longhair seemed to be looking at Milton very closely, like he
wanted to say something cruel.
slept and it was Bigeye's turn to keep watch.
She didn't talk to Milton. She
just looked at him, smiling. Hours
Near the end
of the next morning they started to climb.
mountain was so tall that it obscured the sun until the middle of the day. The slope was even almost all the way up,
broken only by little rough-faced cliffs and exposed slabs of black stone. Trees with needle leaves clung to the dirt
and grew at ugly angles. Milton didn't
like these trees, or their leaves. Late
in the afternoon the people wrapped themselves in extra furs, and wind rushed over the
mountainside, carrying spirals of dust.
That night they ate
bats, which Patchybeard knocked out of the air as they fluttered from the hollows.
the strangers built a fire.
left leg separated at the knee the next day; he rolled down the slope for some time before slamming into a wide
flat boulder. He was covered in needles and
dust when everyone hurried down to help him up. Longhair slapped his head and his chest, hard, to get the dirt out. By that time, Milton's right leg was almost as
bad as his left, and he couldn’t stand on his own.
"I'm not carrying it," Longhair said.
slung Milton over her shoulder, resumed climbing.
thinking about buttons when the arrow hit Patchybeard in the elbow.
He jumped to his feet and he and Longhair scrambled for cover. Patchybeard didn't leave a blood trail even
though he still had the arrow sticking out.
scooped Milton off the ground and ran for a cluster of big rocks. She stomped out the fire on her
way, spit and breath rushing between gritted teeth. Then the light was gone and she was limping. She and
Milton fell together against the rocks. She wrapped one arm tight around him, pressed him against the rock
with her body, and pulled her dagger out.
Patchybeard and Longhair were silent.
footsteps crunched first above and then moved down the mountain alongside
them. Below, at the same time, something
big rustled in the brush.
good," a voice whispered. It was to
their right. It was an ugly voice. He felt Bigeye's hands shaking. Half an hour passed before she would leave him.
studied Bigeye’s blistered foot in the morning, while Patchybeard
dug the arrowhead out of his elbow with his knife. He wouldn't let anybody help him, so it took
a long time. Then he found
the tracks of the people who'd come the night before and said that they'd
headed down, toward the mountain’s base.
be back tonight," Bigeye said.
"Let them come," Patchybeard said.
"We can cover the rest of this by mid-afternoon. Let them take on the Witch."
He sat down
on the ground.
thin," Longhair observed.
could just tell them what he is."
looked up toward the mountaintop. The
sky was a strange shade of purple even though it was morning.
hope you can run," Patchybeard said to Bigeye.
to," Bigeye said, lifting her bad foot up and setting it down.
scratched the back of his head. "I
can run him to the Witch when we get up there.
So you don't strain yourself."
He looked proud to have offered.
She rolled her eyes, and Patchybeard chuckled. "At least he's trying,
do it." Longhair's face was red.
know," Bigeye said, picking Milton up.
Ice glittered in the shadows just beneath the Place Without Air. In the distance, pale green birds flew
straight up with fast wing-beats, went still, sailed
and Patchybeard sat on the ground a short distance down the mountain while
Bigeye carried Milton the rest of the way.
Longhair seemed to be struggling to stay awake. Milton felt the stiffness of Bigeye's walk
and watched her breath bloom from her nose and mouth. He liked the smell of it.
Without Air was a rock plateau barely big enough to build a house on. The sun flared in a black sky.
lay curled up at the plateau's center, her skin grooved and dry and brown and dotted with crooked leaves.
jogged while Milton bobbed on her shoulder.
She knelt in front of the Witch and set Milton down, her breath whistling.
snapped a leaf off the Witch. He liked
struggled over the edge of the plateau exactly as the Witch's brown bones
exploded out of her back. The spray of
splinters reached all the way off the mountain. The bones punched
through Milton's chest, all of them in a second, and twisted and knocked together inside him. Black Clock Tree fruit spilled from his split abdomen. The Witch’s
teeth gleamed behind his leather lips.
stood. From the stump of his left leg
the Witch's bones bloomed like an upside-down flower. He had never felt so strong.
twisted its empty head to look at him. Leaves
grew where her pupils had been. Milton
said a voice like tightening rope. "What in
blazes kept you?"
was cold when Milton picked her up. As the Witch unfurled, flakes
of bark sprung from her skin.
need to go home and fix this. I want my
she coming with us?"
Bigeye had understood him best, too.
strangers surprised them again two days later.
grey, wiry-looking, and dirty. Eight of them ran down the mountain from behind big rocks and shot
arrows into Milton's head and chest. They could not get away after they saw the Witch. One who had been shooting arrows from behind a rock was, after the pop, an outstretched shadow of brown dust.
the night Longhair and Patchybeard tried to take Bigeye away, but Milton
did not let them. They were gone in the morning.
picked at the Witch’s bark as she stood on the ruins of her house. Bigeye lay next to the dried well.
time," the Witch said, kicking a rotted plank, "You're coming with
filled the Witch’s hands, and bricks and
boards started to lift.
a hard time remembering. What had he
been doing a hundred years ago? There
was a time before the Witch, too, maybe.
He couldn’t remember.
liked mushrooms. The Witch thought that
was okay, so Bigeye collected mushrooms.
She lay in them, kept her favorite ones in jars the Witch made. There were thousands of jars.
rippled on Bigeye and Milton as it fell through the Clock Tree canopy. Bigeye smiled, her new button eyes shining, and
handed Milton a dried Clock Tree leaf.
She knew Milton liked leaves.