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A Soul to Keep

A Soul to Keep
by Alexandra Seidel

1. Give me sustenance.

There is no food, she thinks, that can make me not hungry.

Nothing to sate her, nothing at all in the whole wide world. Of course the thing that plagues her, keeps her up at night, is much less a physical hunger, no empty stomach, but it still hurts and churns inside her as if it were. She still feels hollow.

* * *
The first movement.

Everything begins. The question is, where does it begin, and how. To bake her Pfefferkuchenhaus, the witch from Hänsel and Gretel would first knead her dough with bony strong fingers while the oven was heating up, there in the clearing in the woods, no roof over her head to give her shelter from the elements.

Anne considers herself an enchantress, not a witch, and she weaves her spells differently, much less exposed to sudden changes of the climes. But like in that tale before the tale, there still is some kneading to be done before her frame of spells will stand firm.

Kneading here means Anne plans her days carefully: set my alarm early so I am already waiting as you reach the subway; stand close to you on the platform, not too close, but close enough to smell your perfume (vanilla and warm amber), close enough to carefully take an errant hair off your shoulder when your head turns the other way; close enough so my hand brushes against your fingers hidden in gloves as we both get on the same train, and so forth.

No, she is not a stalker. She has no need to stalk. Once the kneading is done, all the rest will follow, mouse to trap, trout to lure.

* * *

2. Give me meaning.

She calculates as follows: (all this, and nothing on a pale paper sheet spanning from here to now) On average, I talk to twenty-three people in the office, take calls from twice as many, and make polite conversation with maybe half a dozen people more on my way to and from work (the coffee shop guy, the neighbor, that sort of thing). I regularly flash a smile while talking to another person, at least once every thirty-three words. All in all, this means nothing to me, just wasted breath.

* * *

Look over one shoulder.

Anne has been named for Anne Boleyn. It was her crazy grandmother who told her this. Two things to know about Anne's grandmother: one, she was not crazy, two, she was to Anne both grandmother and step-mother. The last was the reason why granny did what she did to her husband.

Oh, they did not find Anne's grandfather/father for a long time, but once they did, that's when they started calling Anne's granny crazy. And other things.

* * *

The second movement.

It is a dance. Anne knows all the sad tales of witches, which is why she will not be a witch. Her feet are lighter, no premonition of burning iron in them. After all the watching, all the getting-to-know-before-knowing, she is now ready to make her cauldron boil and bubble, to call upon older and ancient goddesses, to call upon demons and saints. Her spell, it will not be a net but a snare, woven for one sweet ankle, woven of one errant hair collected off her shoulder.

* * *

3. Give me...this dream?

She usually sleeps fitfully and little, no dreams that rattle the clicking abacus of her mind, but not tonight. Tonight, there was a succubus in her dreams. Tonight, she smelled strawberries and crushed pepper, almond oil and blooming lavender, tonight she felt skin rub against her skin, felt the foreign smells grind into her. She even kissed lips fuller than her own, felt and touched and tasted sap and blossom and flower and...there was less hollowness in her when she woke, no less than half an hour later than on every other day before this.

* * *

Look over the other shoulder.

Anne grew up with her grandmother before she was declared crazy, and after that, Anne moved in with a great-aunt who knew what she was, understood as much as anyone can understand. Oh, not the incest-rape child, not that. The witchling child, that is what great-aunt Silla knew and understood, and she whispered Anne's ears read with all her lore-lessons, all her cauldron deep wisdom, all her eggshell truths.

Even after all those years, Anne is convinced that she can hear Silla's voice when she doesn't know that she needs a truth that leaves shattered eggshells in its wake; when she needs the lessons spelled out clear and simple.

* * *

The third movement.

This is why she is not a stalker. She waits on the platform, same as every other morning, but today, she is less invisible than ever before. Today, there will be more than an innocent brush of finger against glove. Today, the oven smells like fresh bread and the Pfefferkuchenhaus stands ready in the forest, waiting to meet teeth and tongue, waiting to meet the tempest and be the temptation.

* * *

4. Give me.

There was always an abacus clicking away in her head like a whip. What must she do, what must she say, and to whom must things be said and in exactly what way. How must she smile the smile of masks, how must her lips tilt while her guts wreak havoc inside her. Today, the abacus is silent, the wooden beads stuck in the gears of her fleshy heart.

The subway sounds like an echoing well, reminds her of clear water.

She sees the gold-brown eyes shining like beacons, the braided hair like fire on a mountain top, and she is enchanted instantly by those lips fuller than her own.

Half a dozen people to and from work who she small talks with each day; not today. Today, there will be real words, real thoughts, real smiles shy as a black cat. And if she is very lucky, words and thoughts and smiles will be drowned in those golden-brown eyes. Today, she will fill her stomach and never let it go empty again with the relentlessly hollow rhythm of abacus beads.

* * *

And tomorrow.

The enchantress does not know her own story after the ever after. Anne Boleyn did become a queen, and there was a happy time on that throne, but it wouldn't be the first time a cunning spell was cut short by an unsheathed blade.

The former abacus girl has stopped counting, but certain numbers do not leave us, certain dreams are not lived beyond the realm of poppy sweet sleep.

Shh, quiet, make no sound; hear eggshells trembling before they crack, before they break; hear wooden beads oil themselves in tears before they start running the numbers again.

* * *

Alexandra Seidel dabbles in the alchemy of words. The results are less metallic, more inky: you can read them at places like Lackington's, Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, and others. If so inclined, you can follow Alexa on Twitter (@Alexa_Seidel) or read her blog:

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I wish I knew! Most of the time it just happens though, you either find there’s a character living in your mind and they want out, or there’s some plot idea that won’t let you sleep. I don’t have a formula, but I do suspect that living life is where fiction starts.