His parents had sold Jeff to a witch. “I’m going to teach you magic, boy,” said the witch. “Wouldn’t you like that?”
Jeff stared at her. He was frightened of witches, even pleasant-voiced lady witches that smelled like ginger cookies. She laughed and squeezed his shoulder as his parents drove slowly down the long gravel driveway.
He cried to himself in his room that night, pressing the pillow against his face so the witch couldn’t hear him. The house was very big and very empty.
“The first thing you have to learn is the wool,” said the witch the next day. They were sitting in her kitchen, among the rows of copper kettles and wooden spoons. It was a gray day outside, gray and cold and autumnal. “Fill this kettle with water, first. Make sure it’s cold, mind.” She lifted an enormous wide-mouthed kettle from below the counter and handed it to him. It weighed almost as much as he did. It was all he could do to lift it.
“I can’t carry this,” he protested. “Not when it’s full!”
The witch looked stern. “‘Can’t’ is a word I will not abide. If it is too heavy to carry full, then you must carry it empty and fill it. Or ask for help, boy. Always ask for help.”
He glared into the kettle. “Where does it go?”
“Put it into the fireplace,” she said. “Hang it over the ashes.”
He grunted and groaned and got it hung on the ashy hook in the fireplace. Soot covered his shoes. The witch tsked, but stayed perched on her stool. Jeff took a pot from the counter and filled it at the sink. Into the kettle went the water. It was barely a puddle at the bottom. He went back to the sink.
And again. And again. And again…
And the witch sat at the counter, toying with a bundle of undyed wool, and watched him with her acorn eyes, and said nothing, and nothing, and nothing…