My third story sale to Andromeda Spaceways, The Gollywhopper Egg, which went into their issue #90. One of my Maine fantasy stories, whereby I turn Maine from a terrifying horror story by Stephen King into an odd and sometimes enchanting fantasy world of witches and frost giants and huge, floating, dead gods hovering over towns… wait, that sounds horrifying!
This one is about the practicality of witches and how they deal with swindlers.
Purchase the issue here: Andromeda Spaceways #90
And if you can’t afford the cost of entry, here’s the final text for free:
The Gollywhopper Egg
On Tuesday, Elsie strolled to the little blue cottage at the edge of the village, where Edyth lived. She didn’t knock, but walked right in and sat down at the kitchen table as though she were expected. She knew Edyth wouldn’t mind. They’d been best friends for as long as she could remember. No two witches were closer, not in all of New England.
“Beautiful day today for the market,” Elsie said, placing her wicker basket on the floor.
Edyth, expecting her, put on a kettle and lit the wood inside her stove with a long match. “Too cold lately,” she said. “Old man winter coming early this year, although I didn’t hear no one calling for him.” She trundled back to the table with a silver tray laden with biscuits and dish of butter from the root cellar.
“I like the cold well enough,” Elsie said, “although winter does make my door yard dreary.” She took off her red, leather gloves. and placed them neatly on the table next to her small plate before she reached for a biscuit. “I might have had a touch of the bronchitis, but nothing to worry about. Dr. Malwich gave me a tonic for it. Says it’s made with scientific precision.”
Edyth snorted. “Doctors. What do they know? I always say the old ways are the best ways. You take yourself down to the Kenduskeag and you give yourself a good dousing in cold water, that’ll cure you right up.”
“Well,” Elsie said, “you’re probably right. And Dr. Malwich charges far too much. Him being from Boston and come up on the train last spring, I’m not surprised. Things always cost more in Boston. I’m only blessed by the fact he takes things in trade.”
“I’ll bet he does. Some of them younger women are only too happy to trade things with him they should be keeping to themselves.”
Elsie smiled. “I might trade the same if he wanted. He has such beautiful features, and a strong face. But all he wants from me is the herbs I grow.”
“I’d have think you done had enough with a husband,” Edyth said, her eyes widening. “And here your Vern is only dead two years and you’re wanting to lay with another? And at your age, too. You should be ashamed.”
“Well, I’m not,” Elsie said. She took a nibble of her biscuit and placed it back on its plate. “A woman has got needs.”
“I ain’t got no needs like that,” Edyth said. “I got myself and this house, and I got my roots and flowers and herbs and such like. I got my hives in the back for honey, and chickens in the coops for eggs. When I need water, I go down to the stream with a bucket, and when I need to make water, I goes out to the woods. That’s all I need.”
“Speaking of eggs,” Elsie lifted the wicker basket and pulled back the red, checkered cloth to reveal an enormous egg, as big as a loaf of bread, ivory in color with brown speckles. “Get a load of what I got at the market today. Isn’t it cunning?” She lifted the egg carefully from the cradle of straw. She placed it on the table and watched Edyth’s eyes. “Only cost me three dollars.”
Edyth frowned. “What’s that supposed to be, some sort of giant chicken?”
Elsie laughed. “No, silly, it’s a Gollywhopper egg. You are so unsophisticated.”
“Don’t go putting on airs. We both growed up in the same town and you’re only a few years younger than me. I know for a fact you ain’t been further away than Bangor.” Edyth lifted the egg and pressed her ear to it. “Sounds like its full of rocks. Probably a dead chick, and the hen that passed an egg that big is dead, too.”
Elsie snatched the egg back and cradled it. “Don’t be cruel. It’s a real Gollywhopper egg, sure enough. You’ll see when it hatches.”
“T’aint likely. There aren’t no such things as Gollywhoppers.”
Elsie sniffed and returned it to the basket. “You don’t know everything there is to know about the world, Edyth Harking, so don’t go pretending like you do.”
“You’re too gullible is all,” Edyth said. The kettle sang then, so she rose on creaking bones and poured two cups of tea. “And ‘sides, what would you need a Gollywhopper for anyhow? What do they do?”
“The peddler man told me they’re the most wonderful, beautiful birds. Such lovely plumage, and they lay fat eggs and bring home trinkets. They don’t even need a husband. He said they breed through the wonders of Parthenon Genesis.”
“That’s what I said. Parthenon Genesis.”
Edyth shook her head. “I love you dear, as I do my own kin, and more so as they ain’t want me around on account of they don’t want a witch in the family, ‘cept when they needs someone to fix them up when they gets ill. But I swear you are as numb as a fence post. And money don’t grow on trees. The peddler man swindled you.”
Elsie sipped her tea. “You’ll see. I’ll hatch the egg and when I have a Gollywhopper I’ll sell its eggs and have all the money I ever wanted. I’ll travel around the world and see such sights as I never dreamed of.”
“Nothing out there you can’t find here,” Edyth said. “You don’t need to be traipsing all over creation. But you come by if that egg hatches and I’ll eat my broomstick.”
“I’m going to hold you to that.”
“Do. Now eat your biscuits, they’re getting cold. I don’t get much use of the lard living on my own so I don’t want it going to waste.”
It had been a charge of time when Edyth stopped by to check on Elsie. Almost two weeks. They never went more than a week between visits. Someone had to look out for them, so they looked out for each other. The younger witches treated them like crotchety old biddies. They thought you should spend your time wandering the woods in gauzy dresses little better than nightgowns, or doing who knew what things. Edyth hadn’t done that when young, nor would she have if she’d been asked to. You’d be certain to catch cold, or get eaten up by the blackflies. She thought it scandalous how disrespectful of the arts younger witches were.
She trundled along, sticking to the forest path and ignoring all the dark things to either side. A rotting corpse swinging from a noose. A pack of wolves snarling through blood-stained muzzles. Elsie’s illusions to scare those who’d come to bother her and Vern, and she hadn’t taken them down since he left. They wouldn’t snag Edyth, but she’d as soon leave them alone than listen to Elsie griping about having to reset her spells.
She pulled the cobweb of charms off her eyes that hid Elsie’s home, as pretty a two-story New England cape cod as you’d find in any town. The siding painted a bright sky blue with yellow shutters; gray and red fish-scale shingles decorating the tower Vern had built on the back of the structure so Elsie would have an airy place to do her work. A crust of snow covered the grass, but in the summer the huge yard bloomed thick with wildflowers, and butterflies and fat bees laden with pollen filled the air.
Elsie didn’t come when she rapped on the door with her cane, so she walked around the side and into the back yard, where the chicken coop had been built. “Elsie, where you gotten to?” Edyth called.
“Here,” a small voice said from the rickety old coop.
Edyth walked through the gate in the fence, chickens scattering with squawks as she passed by. She had to stoop to peer up inside the dark coop. There sat Elsie, squatting on a pile of straw like a scrawny old crow sitting on its nest.
“What are you doing there?”
“Hatching my egg,” Elsie said, although her voice quavered and she had tears running down her cheeks. “It’s been near two weeks now.”
“You been sitting there this whole time?”
Edyth softened a little. “Dear, you know that egg aint gonna hatch. That peddler done lied to you.”
Elsie brushed away the tears with a handkerchief. “I know it, Edyth. But I’m out three dollars and I kept hoping if I waited a dite more, it’d come along.”
“Daoh,” Edyth said. “You know the truth. Now you come out here and we’ll get you something to eat. You must be hungry if you been sitting there two whole weeks.”
“I am a bit hungry,” Elsie said, “and I need to use the privy.”
Edyth nodded and set out for the house. “You take care of the last and I’ll heat up something for you to chew on.” She didn’t wait for an answer, but went straight up to the back door, which led into Elsie’s normally tidy kitchen. After two weeks of disuse, dust had settled on everything. Edyth sniffed, took one of Elsie’s cleaning rags, and set about wiping the place down after wetting it with water from the pump over the sink.
By the time Elsie came in, Edyth had cleaned the kitchen, swept the floor, placed a frypan on the stove, lit a fire, and sliced up some ham she found in the beautiful wooden ice box Vern had built as a wedding gift for Elsie. She cut some biscuits in half and placed them on the warming side of the oven, then dug in the rough, wood cabinets until she found a little jug of Elsie’s homemade maple syrup.
Elsie set down at the table. Edyth could hear her stomach growling from the other side of the room. “I suspect you think I’m a great fool,” Elsie said, licking her lips at the smell of frying ham. “But I’m not. It’s been so lonely out here with Vern gone. I thought maybe a bird would make for good company.”
Edyth forked the meat onto a plate, dolloped out some of the syrup, and set the biscuits down to soak it up. She found a fork, and brought the plate over to Elsie, who sat wringing her hands at the table.
“I thought you were a fool long before this.” Edyth handed her the plate. “I thought you a fool when you went and got married. I thought you a fool for living out here where I can’t keep an eye on you. I thought you a fool when you come and told me he’d gone and you were going to stay here by yourself. But you’re my best friend, Elsie, and you made those choices with a clear head. Fool or no, I respect that. I don’t like when someone lies to people and they make foolish choices because of it.”
Elsie tucked into the meal for a bit. Edyth put on some water for tea and waited until Elsie had gotten her fill. She dolloped some of Elsie’s honey into the chamomile and brought the porcelain cups to the table about the time Elsie sopped up the last of the syrup with a piece of biscuit and popped it into her mouth.
Elsie took a napkin from the table and carefully wiped her lips. “I’m sorry if I’ve been a burden to you, Edyth.”
“You ain’t a burden,” Edyth said. She sat heavily in a chair on the opposite side from Elsie, wincing at the creak in her knees. “I hate you got taken. Folks got a right to have hope, to want something more than they’d been stuck with. Other folks don’t have no right to take advantage of them for wanting.”
“What am I going to do?”
Edyth gave her a look that might have withered a person who didn’t know Edyth quite as well as Elsie did. “I’ll tell you exactly what you’re going to do. You’re going to get your money back from that man.”
“You’re going to do to him what he did to you. You’re going to swindle him.”
“We’re going to do some spelling, Elsie. I have me an idea. Get out that pot of moose blood ink I gave you last Solstice, we got some writing to do.”
Someone knocked on Edyth’s door. She grumbled as she rose from her rocking chair, placing her needlepoint aside. Third time this week someone had come to the door, and neither of the other two times had it been the peddler man Elsie described.
This latest looked promising, though, and matched Elsie’s description. He had an oily quality to him, like the shine of a slick on the surface of a peat bog. He wore a brown tweed suit with a soiled blue cravat, a top hat that had lost all its felt, and black boots that hadn’t seen a lick of polish in years. He ran a finger over his waxed moustache and put on what she assumed must be his charming smile. A folded newspaper was tucked under his other arm.
“Greetings my handsome and good woman,” he said, and gave a slight bow as though she were a queen.
“Good is relative,” she said, “and handsome more so. What do you want?”
“I am but a poor traveler visiting your land from far distant shores.” His words were thickly accented, and as fake as a wooden nickel. “I arrived on a boat in majestic Boston harbor last year, and I immediately set out to find my fortune.”
“Well, you’re not going to find it here. Ain’t nothing in my cottage but dried meat and some herbs. Or the chamber pot if you want to empty it for me. Might be some treasure there.”
He laughed a laugh as fake as his accent. “I will never tire of the charming wit of locals in this great country of yours. No, darling girl—and may I say you are as pretty as a spring rose, Mrs.?” He waited; his hand extended.
Edyth sniffed, then spit to the side of the stoop. “It’s Miss, I’ll thank you to remember. Miss Harking. And spring flowers is all dead by winter. Now what do you want?”
His smile wavered and he pulled his hand away. “Miss Harking, I am so delighted to make your acquaintance at last. The people in your fair town have made me to understand you are the friend of Mrs. Elsie Witham?” He took the newspaper out and unfolded it. He turned it around to show to her. “The same Mrs. Witham who recently purchased from me a most remarkable creature, the likes of which few in the west have seen before?”
On the page he presented was a grainy photo of Elsie standing in front of her cottage. A great bird clung to the eaves, spreading vast wings like sails. It had the appearance of an eagle, but with a long tail of feathers cascading like a waterfall over the edge of the roof until they nearly brushed the ground. The headline read Local Woman Rediscovers Ancient Bird Species. The rest of the print was too small for Edyth to read without her spectacles, but she already knew what it would say. She’d helped Elsie write the words before they’d burned them to ash.
“Yep, that’s Elsie and her squab. What do you want with her?”
“I’ll have you known I am a zoologist of some renown in my own land. Why, my father himself was head of the royal zoological society and guardian of the London Zoo for many long years. It has been my utmost desire to find spectacular species with which we can replenish our menagerie, and this is the most magnificent specimen of Gollywhopper I’ve ever seen.” He tapped the page and looked down at it. “This is a wonder the world must share. It is my wish to buy it back.”
The longer he talked, the more he tripped over his tongue and lost his accent. He paused, coughed, then gave another greasy smile. “They will remember the name Elsie Witham. I daresay they might name the creature after her. The Witham Raptor, perhaps? If you could take me to her so I might make an offer for this remarkable creature?”
“Elsie don’t like strangers coming out to her place,” Edyth said. “And don’t you go trying to find it on your own, you’ll get lost. Wolves will eat you if you wander off into the woods.”
“Wolves?” His pleasant smile dimmed. “Certainly, it would be better if I had someone to guide me. Perhaps you, in fact?”
Edyth sniffed. “What’s in it for me?”
The sly expression returned. Edyth could tell haggling time had begun when he asked, “How might I compensate you for the pleasure of your company?” He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a worn, brown wallet.
“Ten dollars ought to be about right.”
“Let me get my walking stick,” Edyth said after they’d settled on five green backs. She wrapped a shawl around her shoulders to keep away the chill. When she was ready, she led the man away from town and turned down the dark, wooded path that led to Elsie’s cottage.
On later reflection, Edyth thought it might have been a mistake to bring him out to Elsie’s. She toddled along with him beside, and he almost ran her over when he saw the corpse.
“God help us!” he screeched; all accent long fled from his tongue. He ran back along the path towards the bend.
Edyth pointed her cane and Elsie’s illusions vanished. “T’aint nothing but a flash of light through the trees,” she said. She only felt a little guilty. After all, this lay on Elsie’s head for being such a damned fool in the first place. She couldn’t grumble she’d have to reset her spells. It took a few minutes of coaxing, but he regained his oily manners and they continued along.
He stepped into the clearing, and gasped. “What fool builds a beautiful cottage out in the middle of the woods?”
Edyth bristled. No one called her friend a fool but her. “Elsie! You home?”
The front door of the cottage opened and Elsie stepped out. She wore her best black dress, the one she kept for midnight services, and she’d piled her hair in a round bun on top of her head, a red ribbon holding the coiffure. She held a wooden cane, though she rarely used one, the wood polished until it gleamed. She sparkled like a star twinkling in the night sky, and she pressed her hands together in delight, the cane banging against her legs. Edyth thought she looked splendid, like a witch queen of old.
“Why Mr. Peterson, what a surprise to see you here! Oh, but now I can thank you for selling me that egg. It has turned out to be everything you said.”
“Ah, Mrs. Witham, what a delight to see you again,” he said. His accent thickened along with the ingratiating smile. He stepped forward and took her hand, kissing it. “I have come to see your Gollywhopper in person. I’ve heard such marvelous things about it.”
Elsie giggled, which put a sour frown on Edyth’s face. “I am sure you seen a charge of Gollywhoppers, Mr. Peterson. I doubt an old woman’s bird would be worth attention.”
“Please, Mrs. Witham, I would very much like to see your bird in particular,” he insisted. He pulled out the paper and spread open the page with Elsie’s picture. “He has grown so marvelous fast in such a short period of time. I need to reacquire him. I would of course pay a handsome price.”
In the woods beyond the cottage, something screeched. It sounded half like an owl, and half like a bobcat, and like nothing else ever heard in the Maine woods. “He’s off hunting right now, Mr. Peterson. I could call him here, but I don’t want to bother him. And besides, I don’t think I’d like to part from him.”
The trees shivered and something huge and dark passed through the foliage. The peddler took a step towards the forest, his eyes wide, head swiveling back and forth as he tried to catch a glimpse of the creature. “Please, Mrs. Witham. What would you say your bird is worth? Anything, name it.”
“He’s priceless to me,” Elsie said, “and worth more than the three dollars I paid for him. Now if you don’t mind, I have a lot of work to do today. Edyth, would you help me in the kitchen? I’ve got a load of wax beans to be pickled.”
“Please, Mrs. Witham. What can I do to convince you?” He took her elbow and held her fast until Elsie turned back to face him. “May I at least see what I have lost?”
“Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt.” Elsie turned to the forest and gave a shrill whistle that echoed off distant hills. The sound of her call faded away into the forest.
Then the cry they’d heard before came again. The branches of the nearest trees ruffled, then bowed as though a wind passed through them.
It came over the forest, its body as big as an ox, wings blotting the sky. Its plumage was bright red, with a trailing tail of feathers as long as its wings were wide, in every color of the rainbow. Its beak was yellow, its claws as long as a scythe’s blade, and when it called, smaller birds scattered to the safety of the trees.
“Magnificent,” the peddler murmured as it soared high above, its shadow covering the sun. “Oh, how I do wish you would sell it to me. My father is going to be so disappointed when I tell him I lost this opportunity.”
“Well, Mr. Peterson, perhaps instead of the bird I can sell you one of its eggs?”
“Why yes. You remember. The wonders of Parthenon Genesis, just as you said. I’ve already gotten two and I’d been hoping to raise a few more birds. If one is useful, surely three would be three times as useful?”
“I thought you was giving me one of them,” Edyth said. She winked at Elsie.
“Well, yes, dear. But there will be more in the future. Can you bear to part with it?”
Edyth let out a huge sigh, and hoped she weren’t overplaying the act. “Well ‘course I can, if’n it makes this here fellow go away. I needs to sit down soon.”
“Please, Mrs. Witham,” the peddler said. “May I see these eggs?”
“Right this way, Mr. Peterson.” She led him around the side of the house to the chicken coops. In the middle of the open space, a huge nest of tree branches and leaves appeared, as though built by the giant bird floating over Elsie’s cottage. In the middle sat two enormous, ivory-colored eggs. One speckled with brown dots; the other speckled with red.
“Beautiful,” Mr. Peterson said. “I will pay you six dollars for the two.”
“Now, now, Mr. Peterson,” Elsie said, her smile beatific, “that seems far too low a price now that we know the eggs are real. Does it not?”
“Of course, of course. Please, tell me what you think is fair.”
She tapped her chin a few times, looking up at the bird. “I think two hundred dollars each would be a sufficient price. Don’t you?”
“Two hundred?” His face paled. “Please, madam, I do not have remotely that sort of money. Be reasonable. I could perhaps offer you twenty for the two?”
In the end, Elsie settled for one hundred twenty-two dollars and thirty-seven cents for the pair, all the money Mr. Peterson had left.
“You have bankrupted me, madam. I only hope I can find enough financing to return to the shores of my ancestral home with these treasures.”
“I wish you safe journeys, Mr. Peterson. Make sure to stay to the path going through the woods. You don’t wish to get lost.”
“Yes, of course,” he said. He took off his jacket and carefully wrapped the two eggs in it. Then he hurried away and disappeared through a gap in the forest. As soon as he’d gone, the bird and the nest vanished.
“Thank goodness,” Elsie said. She wiped a bead of sweat from her brow. “I didn’t think I could hold them much longer. Harder to make an illusion seem as real as it looks.”
“Hmph,” Edyth said, staring at the place he’d disappeared. “Those weren’t real eggs, either. What did you give him?”
“Two rocks from the garden that come up this spring and I’d dug out. I’d been making a nice pile to finish up that stone fence Vern started.” Elsie’s eyes grew misty as she looked around her clearing. “He would have kept me from getting swindled in the first place. Oh, Edyth, I miss him. It’s so lonely out here. But I don’t want to leave the home he helped me make. Am I a fool for staying?”
Edyth shrugged and started walking towards the porch. “No more than anyone. But maybe you need someone living with you who can keep you out of trouble. Too many people knocking on my door these days. Trains bringing in folks from away all the time. I suspect we ain’t seen the last of your peddler man, either. By next week he’ll realize all he got were rocks and he’ll come looking for us. My cottage will be his first stop.”
Elsie pressed her hands together. “Will you come stay? I’ve got plenty of room.”
Edyth gave the winter-barren meadow an appraising look. “I don’t think you’d like me as much if’n we lived under the same roof, and I like my cottage too much to leave it behind. But it’s been a charge of time since I’ve had it up on its legs and walked it around. Going to need to tie everything down so it doesn’t shake my things to pieces when it moves. It’ll have to be a dark night, too, so folks don’t notice.”
“They’ll notice when it’s gone.”
Edyth nodded. “They’ll be happy the old witch on the corner has gotten out of town. And I can sell the land. It’s a nice parcel. Should be worth a few dollars.”
Elsie wrapped an arm around Edyth as they climbed the steps to the house. “I love you.”
“Course you do,” Edyth said.