Mrs. Cantanker’s Midnight Snack
Deleted scene from Cinders and Sparrows by Stefan Bachmann
On Tuesday, Mrs. Cantanker announced that my morning lesson would take place in the crypts, and so off we went, out of the castle and down the paths into the woods where the steps lead down into the dark. It was not so much a ‘lesson’, technically, more of a me-standing-next-to-an-open-tomb-while-listening-to-the-seven-hunded-year-old-spirit-of-a-witch-as-it-hissed-and-whispered-within. But Mrs. Cantanker was far too distracted to teach me herself. I stood with the toes of my shoes in a puddle, taking notes in my small black chapbook and trying to sort out the most interesting bits of the witch’s tales, and all the while Mrs. Cantanker sat draped over one of the neighboring sarcophagi, her great skirts trailing around her, twisting and twisting the blue ring on her finger.
What was she thinking about? I wondered, watching her out of the corner of my eye. I would have been relieved, usually, by her ignoring me, but today it disquieted me. She seemed distracted, impatient, and once or twice I could have sworn I heard her stomach growl.
Lunch was a hurried business, the afternoon was spent in the crypts as well, and by nightfall I was ready to run back to my room and never speak to anyone again, certainly nothing Dead. (I had begun to realize that the Dead had far more time than I did and were consequently terribly unfeeling about wasting it.)
I stalked up the servants’ staircase after supper, daring the Ghost of a Moonlit Owl to make so much as a single, eldritch coo. And just I was about to turn the corner that led to my room, I spotted a thread of light seeping from under Mrs. Cantanker’s door, along with the sound of a phonograph playing something scratchy and nostalgic. I stopped in my tracks, listening. The music was very beautiful, like something a great lady might sing in a sad and dingy theater to make the patrons think of happier times.
I had never looked into Mrs. Cantanker’s chambers before. I had never dared. But I had not been a housemaid for so long without having developed the powerful urge to peek through every keyhole that promised to show me something interesting, so I waited for the music to reach the blaring end of its crescendo and then crept forward and knelt, blinking against the cold metal lock.
My own bedroom had always struck me as the loveliest room anyone could possibly want, but Mrs. Cantanker’s was grander by a mile. The walls were hung with red velvet. The ceiling was a forest of gilt leaves. A fire crackled in an onyx fireplace, a sterling clock ticked on its mantle, and all the gas-lamps had been lit.
My eye traveled slowly across the room. It seemed empty at first, waiting. And then, all at once, the music stopped, the phonograph’s needle slipping from its groove, and I saw Mrs. Cantanker sitting in front of the mirror at her dressing table, rubbing thick, pinkish cream into her cheeks. All was silent now. All I could hear were the lamps, a continuous hiss, as if the walls were full of vipers.
Mrs. Cantanker’s eyes sparkled as she stared at herself. Some people’s faces grow limp and languid when they think they are alone, but she was watching herself just as keenly and mistrustfully as she tended to watch me. When she had finished with her array of salves and ointments, she leaned back, inspecting her neck and pulling at the corners of her eyes. Then, almost absentmindedly, she drew a colored candy-tin from among the perfume bottles on her dressing table and opened the lid.
A horrible scream emanated from inside. It was not very loud. In fact, it sounded as if it were coming from miles away, from across desolate hills and moors. But it was piercing and heart-rending, and it made the hairs on my arms prickle. Mrs. Cantanker did not seem alarmed by it. She dipped two fingers into the tin and plucked out a glowing ball of light, bright and silvery as a star. The screaming, I realized, was coming from the light.
Mrs. Cantanker lifted it, pinched between thumb and forefinger, turning it this way and that. When she brought it up to the mirror, I noticed that the glass did not reflect the star-like little ball, but a plump, elderly lady in a feathered hat. The lady might have been grand once, but now she looked ragged and windblown, her feathers drooping, as if she had been on a long and terrible journey. Her face was panic-stricken.
“No, ma’am, please,” she said, pressing her hands to the mirror. “Please let me go! Please–”
But Mrs. Cantanker did not seem to see the woman in the mirror. She ran her tongue over her teeth, opened her mouth very wide . . . and swallowed the light whole.
I gasped. The woman in the mirror vanished, her voice cut suddenly short. A satisfied smile spread over Mrs. Cantanker’s face, her eyes going half-lidded and a deep purr slithering out of her belly. It reminded me of Mrs. Boliver’s cats after they’d feasted on a bird, or a pie I’d left on the sill to cool.
I knew at once what had happened: Mrs. Cantanker had just eaten a soul.
My knees began to burn against the floorboards. I wanted to get up, but I also wanted to see what would happen next. No good witch devoured lost souls to fuel their magic. I’d read enough of the books in Greta’s library to know that. I’d never been under the illusion that Mrs. Cantanker was good, but now I had seen it with my own eyes. I shifted ever so slightly, readying myself to spring up and run away. The floorboards let out an agonizing creak.
I waited, frozen, praying Mrs. Cantanker had not heard. She did not stir from her position in front of the mirror. But then her head slumped slowly back over her neck, and her eyes were open, bright and wicked, staring directly at the keyhole.
I leaped to my feet and ran back to my room, not stopping until the door was firmly locked behind me.
I hardly slept a wink that night. I lay in my bed, covers pulled up to my chin, wondering what to do. Some time later I thought I heard a soft step outside my door, the rustling of skirts as someone paused and listened, and then a sly, amused titter. I thought perhaps I’d dreamed the whole encounter, but in the morning, Mrs. Cantanker did indeed appear changed: she looked triumphant, incandescent, and as she swept hither and yon through the High Blackbird’s Study I could swear I saw a pale hand on her shoulder, and sometimes the flicker of an extra arm, long and thin as a fish bone, when she raised her own. I knew she was ready now, that whatever she’d been planning was waiting just around the corner.
Note (mild spoilers): this was a scene from an earlier draft of CINDERS that I cut because I couldn’t get it to work with the pacing. The pale hand at the end belongs to the Butcher of Beydun who Mrs. Cantanker is now bound to, too, after eating the soul and performing an incantation that Zita was not privy to.