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The Witch 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 counter.  "It'll 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."

Milton nodded.

"If 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?"

Milton 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.

Three weeks 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 found.

Had Milton even been alive three weeks?  He couldn't remember.  Three weeks sounded like a long time.

Milton 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 fruits 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.

The Witch's 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.

Next, the 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.

That was when Milton remembered.

Three weeks wasn't such a long time after all, if you kept busy.

 

#

 

To prepare 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.

It occurred 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.

One day, people came.

Milton 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.

They all 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.

"What’s this ugly thing?" Longhair said.

"Somebody's 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 person."

Milton thought the people seemed friendly enough, so he offered them a fruit.

Longhair jumped back the farthest.

Milton put the fruit back in his abdomen.  He couldn't blame Longhair; it was very old fruit.  He pointed toward the mountains.

"Unbelievable," said Patchybeard.  "It's all true.  It’s the Great Witch's doll."

The third 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."

Milton pointed again.  Now, shrouded in clouds and the dusk's yellow light, the mountains looked very big.

 

#

 

The people built a fire with sticks.  Wide-winged bugs fluttered over the fire, embers floating between them.

Instead of 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.

They were 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.

Patchybeard 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.

Strangers came within sight of them a few times that afternoon; through dusk they turned, moved parallel to the mountains.  They seemed to move very quickly.

"People carry a lot of goods through here," Patchybeard said, sliding a large dagger back into his boot. 

The Place 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.

Cold air 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.

Bigeye started singing first.  Milton had heard the Witch sing once or twice, but the Witch disliked singing as it tended to attract many cockroaches. 

 

Walks the Witch upon the mountain

Whereupon the sky does chill

The 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.

"Tell us about the Great Witch," Patchybeard said through a smile.

Milton stood up and extended his arms as high as he could.

"She was tall," said Longhair.

He shook his head and extended both arms from his sides.

"Fat," said Longhair.

Milton shook his head again.  He sat on the ground and stared at the mountains.

"She was important," Bigeye said. Bigeye understood him best.

They 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.

 

#

 

Longhair 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.

Longhair slept and it was Bigeye's turn to keep watch.  She didn't talk to Milton.  She just looked at him, smiling.  Hours passed.

 

#

 

Near the end of the next morning they started to climb.

The 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. 

Nobody sang.

Nobody slept.

Further up, the strangers built a fire. 

 

#

 

Milton's 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.

Bigeye slung Milton over her shoulder, resumed climbing.

 

#

 

Night came.

Milton was 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.  

Bigeye 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.

Quiet footsteps crunched first above and then moved down the mountain alongside them.  Below, at the same time, something big rustled in the brush.

"No 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.

 

#

 

They 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. 

"They'll 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.

"Air's thin," Longhair observed.

"Yeah."

"We could just tell them what he is."

Patchybeard snorted. 

Longhair looked up toward the mountaintop.  The sky was a strange shade of purple even though it was morning.

"I hope you can run," Patchybeard said to Bigeye.

"Have to," Bigeye said, lifting her bad foot up and setting it down.

Longhair 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, right?"

Bigeye shrugged, smiling.

"I can do it."  Longhair's face was red.

"I 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 back down.

Longhair 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.

 

#

 

The Place Without Air was a rock plateau barely big enough to build a house on.  The sun flared in a black sky. 

The Witch lay curled up at the plateau's center, her skin grooved and dry and brown and dotted with crooked leaves.

Bigeye jogged while Milton bobbed on her shoulder.  She knelt in front of the Witch and set Milton down, her breath whistling.

"Pluck," she said.

She fell laying face-up. 

Milton snapped a leaf off the Witch.  He liked leaves.

Patchybeard 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.

Milton stood.  From the stump of his left leg the Witch's bones bloomed like an upside-down flower.  He had never felt so strong.

The Witch-tree twisted its empty head to look at him.  Leaves grew where her pupils had been.  Milton liked that.

"Milton," said a voice like tightening rope. "What in blazes kept you?"

 

#

 

Bigeye was cold when Milton picked her up.  As the Witch unfurled, flakes of bark sprung from her skin.

"We need to go home and fix this. I want my bones back."

Milton nodded.

"Is she coming with us?"

Milton nodded.

 

#

 

Longhair cried hardest.

Bigeye had understood him best, too.

 

#

 

The strangers surprised them again two days later. 

They were 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.

Twice in the night Longhair and Patchybeard tried to take Bigeye away, but Milton did not let them. They were gone in the morning.

 

#

 

Birds picked at the Witch’s bark as she stood on the ruins of her house.  Bigeye lay next to the dried well.

"Next time," the Witch said, kicking a rotted plank, "You're coming with me."

Milton nodded.

Light filled the Witch’s hands, and bricks and boards started to lift.

 

#

 

Time passed.

Milton had 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.

Bigeye 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.

Sunlight 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.

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