Home > Stardust(13)

Author: Neil Gaiman

Inside, the cottage consisted of one room, undivided. Smoked meats and sausages hung from the rafters, along with a wizened crocodile carcass. A peat fire burned smokily in the large fireplace against one wall, and the smoke trickled out of the chimney far above. There were three blankets upon three raised beds — one large and old, the other two little more than truckle beds.

There were cooking implements, and a large wooden cage, currently empty, in another corner.

There were windows too filthy to see through, and over everything was a thick layer of oily dust.

The only thing in the house that was clean was a mirror of black glass, as high as a tall man, as wide as a church door, which rested against one wall.

The house belonged to three aged women.

They took it in turns to sleep in the big bed, to make the supper, to set snares in the wood for small animals, to draw water up from the deep well behind the house.

The three women spoke little.

There were three other women in the little house. They were slim, and dark, and amused. The hall they inhabited was many times the size of the cottage; the floor was of onyx, and the pillars were of obsidian. There was a courtyard behind them, open to the sky, and stars hung in the night sky above. A fountain played in the courtyard, the water rolling and falling from a statue of a mermaid in ecstasy, her mouth wide open. Clean, black water gushed from her mouth into the pool below, shimmering and shaking the stars.

The three women, and their hall, were in the black mirror.

The three old women were the Lilim — the witch-queen — all alone in the woods.

The three women in the mirror were also the Lilim: but whether they were the successors to the old women, or their shadow-selves, or whether only the peasant cottage in the woods was real, or if, somewhere, the Lilim lived in a black hall, with a fountain in the shape of a mermaid playing in the courtyard of stars, none knew for certain, and none but the Lilim could say.

On this day, one crone came in from the woods, carrying a stoat, its throat a splash of red.

She placed it on the dusty chopping board and took a sharp knife. She cut it around at the arms and legs and neck, then, with one filthy hand, she pulled the skin off the creature, as if pulling a child from its pyjamas, and she dropped the na**d thing onto the wooden chopping block.

“Entrails?” she asked, in a quavering voice.

The smallest, oldest, most tangle-headed of the women, rocking back and forth in a rocking chair, said, “Might as well.” The first old woman picked up the stoat by the head, and sliced it from neck to groin. Its innards tumbled out onto the cutting board, red and purple and plum-colored, intestines and vital organs like wet jewels on the dusty wood.

The woman screeched, “Come quick! Come quick!” Then she pushed gently at the stoat-guts with her knife, and screeched once more.

The crone in the rocking chair pulled herself to her feet. (In the mirror, a dark woman stretched and rose from her divan.

) The last old woman, returning from the outhouse, scurried as fast as she could from the woods.

“What?” she said. “What is it?”(In the mirror, a third young woman rejoined the other two. Her br**sts were small and high, and her eyes were dark.

)“Look,” gestured the first old woman, pointing with her knife.

Their eyes were the colorless grey of extreme age, and they squinted at the organs on the slab.

“At last,” said one of them, and “About time,” said another.

“Which of us, then, to find it?” asked the third.

The three women closed their eyes, and three old hands stabbed into the stoat-guts on the board.

An old hand opened. “I’ve a kidney.”

“I’ve his liver.”The third hand opened. It belonged to the oldest of the Lilim. “I’ve his heart,” she said, triumphantly.

“How will you travel?”

“In our old chariot, drawn by what I find at the crossroads.”

“You’ll be needing some years.”The oldest one nodded.

The youngest, the one who had come in from the outhouse, walked, painfully slowly, over to a high and ramshackle chest of drawers, and bent over. She took a rusting iron box from the bottommost drawer, and carried it over to her sisters. It was tied around with three pieces of old string, each with a different knot in it. Each of the women unknotted her own piece of string, then the one who had carried the box opened the lid.

Something glittered golden in the bottom of the box.

“Not much left,” sighed the youngest of the Lilim, who had been old when the wood they lived in was still beneath the sea.

“Then it’s a good thing that we’ve found a new one, isn’t it?” said the oldest, tartly, and with that she thrust a clawed hand into the box. Something golden tried to avoid her hand, but she caught it, wiggling and glimmering, opened her mouth, and popped it inside.

(In the mirror, three women stared out.

)There was a shivering and a shuddering at the center of all things.

(Now, two women stared from the black mirror.

)In the cottage, two old women stared, envy and hope mixing in their faces, at a tall, handsome woman with black hair and dark eyes and red, red lips.

“My,” she said, “but this place is filthy.” She strode to the bed. Beside it was a large wooden chest, covered by a faded tapestry. She twitched off the tapestry and opened the chest, rummaging inside.

“Here we go,” she said, holding up a scarlet kirtle. She tossed it onto the bed, and pulled off the rags and tatters she had worn as an old woman.

Her two sisters stared across at her na**d body hungrily.

“When I return with her heart, there will be years aplenty for all of us,” she said, eying her sisters’ hairy chins and hollow eyes with disfavor. She slipped a scarlet bracelet onto her wrist, in the shape of a small snake with its tail between its jaws.

“A star,” said one of her sisters.

“A star,” echoed the second.

“Exactly,” said the witch-queen, putting a circlet of silver upon her head. “The first in two hundred years. And I’ll bring it back to us.” She licked her scarlet lips with a deep red tongue.

“A fallen star,” she said. It was night in the glade by the pool and the sky was bespattered with stars beyond counting.

Fireflies glittered in the leaves of the elm trees and in the ferns and in the hazel bushes, flickering on and off like the lights of a strange and distant city. An otter splashed in the brook that fed the pool. A family of stoats wove and wound their way to the water to drink. A fieldmouse found a fallen hazelnut and began to bite into the hard shell of the nut with its sharp, ever-growing front teeth, not because it was hungry, but because it was a prince under an enchantment who could not regain his outer form until he chewed the Nut of Wisdom. But its excitement made it careless, and only the shadow that blotted out the moonlight warned it of the descent of a huge grey owl, who caught the mouse in its sharp talons and rose again into the night.

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