‘Spindle House’, Jennifer Hudak

Illustrations © 2022 Eric Asaris

 [ Sturdy rocking chair, © 2022 Eric Asaris ] Only the crones can hear Spindle House’s call. They alone recognize the whispering of its windows and the keening of its attic, and the ones who follow the call all the way to the front door are allowed admittance. Once ushered inside, the crones do not impose their will on the House, don’t tear down the sagging porch or reupholster the sitting room chairs. They know enough to leave the cobwebs intact, and the House loves them for it. For the crones are no mere inhabitants, and the House is no object to be owned. They are, all of them, peers. They are confidants. They are a coven.

Today, Spindle House will open its doors, and the coven will welcome a new member.

Even now, footsteps sound on nearby pavement, thundering into the soil beneath, echoing along mole holes and up through the sump pump in Spindle House’s basement. Someone is arriving, someone whose ears pricked up at Spindle House’s song, someone whose loneliness and need sings right back. They will be here soon, and the crones need to prepare.

The House unlocks the front door.

Agata snorts and opens her eyes. She’d been napping, deeply, in the sturdy rocking chair she prefers, dreaming of mushroom soup. The House hates to rouse her—it hates to rouse any of the crones when they are getting some well-deserved rest—but it has no choice. And Agata is no fool. She hoists herself out of the rocking chair and peers at the door, whose deadbolt knob has snicked horizontal instead of vertical.

“Someone new is coming,” she calls out.

“Are we sure?” Glory looks out the window. “I don’t see anyone.”

“The House always knows.”

Glory has only been at Spindle House for a year, and there’s a lot she still hasn’t learned. She can’t yet interpret the pattern of creaks in the attic steps, for example, or feel the slight rumble as the House wriggles its toes in the dirt. But she knows that her own bones foretell imminent storms, and she assumes that the House’s bones ache just the same.

She sets the kettle on to boil, and strokes her chin while she considers the jars lined up in the cupboard. Chamomile, that’s easy. But also, she thinks, a pinch of peppermint, and some rosehip. She spoons the lot into a teapot and, after another moment’s thought, takes down the wildflower honey. Then she nods, satisfied.

Meanwhile, Agata shakes out a set of bed linens. Last week, she laundered them, hung them to dry, and then folded them with a sprig of lavender. Now she spreads them on a recently-vacated bed. Clara’s bed. Clara left Spindle House not long ago—gone to sky, to earth, to wind and dust. The crones mourn and celebrate at the same time. One cannot do one without the other. The new one won’t replace Clara—crones are not interchangeable—but she will fit here if she wants to.

The crones found their way to Spindle House singly: Orderly Agata, who knows exactly where everything ought to be; Violet and her collection of knitting needles; Patricia, who armors herself with cosmetics and wigs, who wields her lacquered nails like swords; and Glory with her talent for mixing teas and tinctures. The House unlocked its doors for them one by one. Crones may travel in covens, but it’s in the process of discovering a coven that one becomes a crone.

Now, they wait. They hush. Violet binds off the shawl she’s been knitting. Agata checks their stock of mushrooms and makes a note to harvest a fresh crop from the basement, where they sprout from the dirt floor in a miniature forest. Patricia purses scarlet-painted lips and sits primly on the edge of the sofa so that she doesn’t wrinkle her skirt. Glory has never before witnessed an arrival and isn’t sure of her place; Spindle House tries to soothe her by amplifying the steady tick of the large kitchen clock. Still, Glory is the only one who jumps when the door flings itself open.

The woman who presents herself to the House has gray hair pulled back into a bun, a thin coat thrown over a house dress, and practical pumps. Even though she has traveled to Spindle House purposefully and willingly, she hesitates before she crosses the threshold. The House makes itself as welcoming as it can, expanding its entryway to allow the woman space, fluffing its rug to cushion her feet; still she remains frozen in the doorway, as if caught in the act of committing a crime. This is a woman, Agata realizes, who has never been made to feel at home. A woman who has always served another’s purpose, rather than her own.

Agata stands, favoring her right hip, and formally invites the woman inside. “Please,” she says, reaching out her hand. “Spindle House is yours.”

The woman still hesitates, but only for a moment. Then she inches inside, tentatively, her eyes darting birdlike around the room. Violet, having finished binding off the shawl, now stands to wrap it around the woman’s shoulders. Patricia eyes the woman’s raw, torn cuticles and offers up a jar of her thickest lotion. Glory pours the tea.

Agata wants very much to sit back down, but something feels… unfinished. The woman is here, the House has closed the door—gently, so as not to frighten her—and the coven gathers round. Everything should be in its place. But it’s not. There’s a loose end, as ugly and obvious as a hanging tail of yarn in one of Violet’s knits. It grates at Agata, and she can’t relax.

This doesn’t surprise the House. Agata is always the first to notice everything. And she’s right: there is a loose end. It’s approaching Spindle House right now, marching up its drive with heavy, angry steps. This is no crone searching for a coven. This is something else altogether.

Now the rest of the crones hear the footsteps approaching. The new woman clutches Patricia’s arm with her newly moisturized fingers and murmurs something, her voice quieter than a whisper. Patricia leans close to hear.

“He doesn’t listen.”

This, the House understands. It knows how it feels to be ignored, dismissed, treated as less than sentient. It sends an angry hiss of water through its pipes, and tells the crones it will lock its door and throw the deadbolt. It will release the bats in its attic and the bees in its walls, and invite the poison ivy growing near the porch to rise up and weave itself around the interloper’s ankles.

But the crones trade glances. They’ve met men like this before. And they know that he will not simply go away, no matter how loudly the House protests.

“I think,” says Agata, “we ought to welcome him into our parlor.”

The House’s pipes stop their hissing, and its radiators tick thoughtfully. It has been years since the coven had someone for tea. The rest of the crones nod, alarmed but not afraid.

Someone turns the House’s doorknob. “Mom?” calls a voice from outside. The woman cringes back as a young man opens the door wide and steps through, knocking twice on the frame as an afterthought. Agata bristles at this breach in courtesy, and Violet reaches for her knitting needles. Only Glory and Patricia appear unfazed, Glory because she doesn’t know any better, and Patricia because she is accustomed to wearing her face as a mask. Spindle House follows Patricia’s example and smooths its area rugs and curtains, levels out its wonky stair.

The man spots the new arrival and throws out his hands. “Mom! What are you doing? This isn’t your house!”

“She was invited,” says Agata. “She’s meant to be here.”

The man registers Agata for only an instant; then his eyes slide past her, dismiss her—dismiss all the crones—as unnecessary.

“Sorry, ladies, she sometimes gets confused,” he says, and then remembers to smile. “Mom, you know you’re supposed to ask me before you leave the home.”

The woman looks down at the floor. “I’m not your mom,” she whispers.

He lets out an exaggerated sigh. “We’ll get out of your hair,” he says to the crones. “Come on, Mom.”

The woman pulls Violet’s shawl more tightly around her shoulders and raises her head. “I’m not your mom,” she says again. The House amplifies her words, lets them echo through the room. “I’ve asked you to call me Margie.”

The man laughs, loudly, showing all his teeth. “Well, okay, Margie. You know, I’m only calling you Mom because I’m speaking for both myself and Alice. Imagine everything I’m saying is coming from her, okay?”

“But Alice said I didn’t have to move.” Margie clears her throat, as if she is still unused to speaking. “She told me I could stay in my house if I wanted to. I was just fine there. Alice said she could—”

“Alice needs to focus more on our house,” says the man, his voice hardening. “I don’t want her running off to help you every time you need to change a light bulb or go to the store.”

“But she said it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Alice shouldn’t have said anything before checking with me.”

Glory breathes in sharply. She hears the way the man speaks Alice’s name, like a bitter tea in his mouth. Violet, too, sees the web this man has woven, how its strands tangle around both daughter and mother.

The man advances into the room. Step by step, deeper into the House, where he doesn’t belong. He won’t listen to Margie. He won’t listen to any of them. Spindle House’s floors vibrate in a barely-perceptible tremor that only the crones can feel. It hasn’t done this in a long time. But it remembers how.

The crones begin their work.

Patricia steps between Margie and the man. His jaw clenches in irritation, but Patricia’s powdered face is hard as armor. “We’re so glad you could join us today,” she says, hooking her shiny purple nails into his sleeve.

Glory hurries back into the kitchen and pinches herbs into a cup. When she pours water over them, a thick steam wafts up, winding its way into the vestibule where it coils like a rope. Meanwhile, Violet weaves her spell with strands of cotton-puff hair and wiry chin-whiskers, with balls of yarn and strips of cloth, with spider-webs that cling to corners and dust-bunnies that gather near baseboards.

And Agata, orderly Agata, gathers all their magic together, harnessing the power of the coven. A place for everything, and everything in its place, and that place is here: warped floorboards and out-of-square walls, low ceilings that weep in heavy rains. Here in the House that loves the crones so.

Spindle House flexes its ceiling joists.

The man flinches as if he’s been stung. He slaps at his own arms, waves his hands near his face. He hasn’t bothered looking at the crones carefully, and he still can’t see the points of their knitting needles, the rough edges of their hangnails. He can’t taste the kiss Patricia gives him, with her painted mouth as red as blood.

But Margie can see everything. For the first time in years, her eyes clear and sharpen. She’s always been meek and compliant. She was taught that a lady ought to smile pleasantly and hold her tongue, that staying quiet meant staying safe—and she taught her daughter the same. How she regrets that now. How she regrets never teaching her daughter to use her voice.

But now, at long last, Margie will use her voice for the both of them. She draws in a deep breath, opens her mouth, and wails.

She wails for the husband who has long since returned to earth; for the daughter who once curled in her lap; for a world she barely recognizes but loves still, with a ferocity she’s only now beginning to reclaim.

Her voice rises and rises, and Glory’s steam coalesces around her in a thick halo of magic. Violet knits Margie into their spell. Patricia runs her hand roughly down the man’s face, wiping away his faux-concern as if it were nothing more than rouge. And Agata gathers up Margie’s voice as if it were a freshly-laundered sheet, shakes it out with a snap, and folds it into a tidy incantation. Spindle House’s walls bow in and out, breathing the crones’ magic. Making it manifest.

The front door slams shut with a bang that makes the man jump. Regaining his composure, he strides to the door and jiggles the knob, violently, trying to force the door to open.

Spindle House will not be forced.

The front door shudders and bristles with splinters. One of them pulls itself from the wood and flings itself across the room, grazing the man’s cheek as it flies by. He backs away from the door, stumbling on buckling floorboards.

“Hey!” he calls, jerking as another flying splinter aims itself at his eyes. “I’m just trying to help!”

“I don’t. Need. Your help.” Margie forces each word out with difficulty, and the man staggers back as if pushed.

“You’re just confused!” he pleads.

Margie falters. She is confused, about so much. The world has grown so very strange, and there’s so much she doesn’t remember.

But still. She remembers this man. How he poisoned her daughter against her. How he poisons everything.

Spindle House rises around her, its old bones sturdy and strong, and Margie remembers that she is not helpless. Violet’s shawl holds her together and shields her like a suit of armor. Agata’s whispered incantation is a song Margie remembers, a sharp breeze cutting through fog. She breathes in deep, filling her lungs with Glory’s steam and Patricia’s perfume. She pauses, gathering her strength.

Then she screams.


It’s a wall of sound, and as it echoes through Spindle House, bouncing off its walls and filling up its corners and rafters, it pushes the man toward a door that yawns like an open mouth, a door that leads to the basement. Dust whirls and rises and makes his eyes water, and the floor bucks beneath his feet, and everything in Spindle House rises up to reject him like white blood cells fighting off an infection.

Margie’s shriek grows hoarse but with one final push, it forces the man backwards, all at once, down the basement steps. His arms cartwheel; he grasps for Margie, for a railing, for anything to break his fall. But it’s too late.

He lands roughly on the dirt floor at the bottom, injured, but still alive. For now.

 [ Mushrooms, © 2022 Eric Asaris ] Margie stands at the top of the stairs, looking down at the helpless, broken body the man has become, and thinks of Alice. When he doesn’t return, will her daughter worry? Will she blame herself? Will she—Margie pales at the thought—will she find someone even worse?

“No,” Margie whispers, and then she says it again, louder: “No.” Like Margie, Alice is stronger than she appears. She just needs a chance to discover it for herself.

The dirt floor beneath the man rustles, and churns, and mushrooms pop up like bubbles in a cauldron, pale and soft and so delicate you might think you could crush them.

You would be wrong.

Up they spring, dozens of mushrooms, hundreds. White buttons grow between his fingers and legs; intricately-furled hens of the woods creep over his shirt and pants, up his neck toward his chin. He opens his mouth to scream and a portabella sprouts between his lips. Small toadstools with long arching stems emerge from his ears and his nostrils and his eyes, from every gaping orifice. Within minutes, he is indistinguishable from the fungus, just another fruiting body. He has returned to earth. He is gone.

The spell dissipates. Margie pants, and places her hand against the wall to steady herself. The House sighs and creaks. It takes longer, these days, for it to recover after an effort like this. It is not as young as it once was, but who is?

Agata offers to take Margie’s coat, but she demurs and backs away, still shaken. Agata just shrugs. No one tells a crone what to wear, or what to do.

Glory pours a fresh cup of tea, and after a wary moment, Margie accepts it. She breathes in the steam and the muscles around her eyes and jaw unclench. She’s still a skittish, frightened bird of a woman, but they all feel a change in her energy as her panic lessens. Agata nods approvingly at Glory, who flushes with embarrassed pride.

“My daughter,” says Margie, her forehead creasing. “Alice.”

“Maybe she’ll find her way here,” says Agata. “If she wants to.” Agata is careful not to promise, because none of the crones lie to each other. But she offers hope, because in spite of everything, hope fills Spindle House like oxygen, like the scent of lavender tucked into sheets and mint steeping in tea, like cocoa-butter lotion rubbed into tired hands and knitted blankets piled on sofas. Alice is young—perhaps too young to hear Spindle House’s call—but age alone does not make a crone. A crone chooses to be. Everything a crone needs to know is already within her foundations, in her bones.

Margie takes her tea and settles herself into the floral chair with lace doilies on the arms. The chair no one ever sits in, as if it’s been waiting for her. And perhaps it has; Spindle House doesn’t ask existential questions. It’s simply a House.

The clock ticks, and the crones each sit in their preferred chair, and Spindle House retreats into its rafters to rest. They doze, and dream their own dreams. And, Agata promises herself, when they wake, there will be mushroom soup.

© 2022 Jennifer Hudak

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