‘Tell me about Miss Level,’ Tiffany said quickly. The name and address was all she knew about the lady she was going to stay with, but an address like ‘Miss Level, Cottage in the Woods near the dead oak tree in Lost Man’s Lane, High Overhang, If Out Leave Letters in Old Boot by Door’ sounded promising.
‘I’m sorry, but I’m not going to help anyone chop up innocent frogs and bats,’ said Tiffany firmly.
‘Oh, no, she never kills any!’ said Miss Tick hurriedly. ‘She only uses creatures that have died naturally or been run over or committed suicide. Frogs can get quite depressed at times.’
This toad had once been a lawyer (a human lawyer; toads manage without them) who’d been turned into a toad by a fairy godmother who’d intended to turn him into a frog but had been a bit hazy on the difference.
She found her way into the kitchen. It was cold and quiet, except for the ticking of a clock on the wall. Both the hands had fallen off the clock face, and lay at the bottom of the glass cover, so while the clock was still measuring time it wasn’t inclined to tell anyone about it.
‘Tuppence for the ferryman?’ said Tiffany, as they walked home.
‘Mr Weavall remembers all the old funeral traditions,’ said Miss Level. ‘Some people believe that when you die you cross the River of Death and have to pay the ferryman. People don’t seem to worry about that these days. Perhaps there’s a bridge now.’
‘It’s terribly difficult to do this!’ Miss Level moaned. ‘It’s like trying not to think of a pink rhinoceros!’
‘Well?’ said Mistress Weatherwax. ‘What’s so special about not thinking of a pink rhinoceros?’
‘It’s impossible not to think of one if someone tells you you mustn’t,’ Tiffany explained.
‘No it ain’t,’ said Mistress Weatherwax firmly. ‘I ain’t thinking of one right now, and I gives you my word on that. You want to take control of that brain of yours, Miss Level. So you’ve lost a spare body? What’s another body when all’s said and done? Just a lot of upkeep, another mouth to feed, wear and tear on the furniture… in a word, fuss. Get your mind right, Miss Level, and the world is your…’ The old witch leaned down to Tiffany and whispered: ‘What’s that thing, lives in the sea, very small, folks eat it?’
‘Shrimp?’ Tiffany suggested, a bit puzzled.
‘Shrimp? All right. The world is your shrimp, Miss Level.’
‘She’ll be fine with your little men keeping her company,’ said Mistress Weatherwax as she and Tiffany turned away and took the lane through the woods. ‘It could be the making of her, you know, being half dead.’
Tiffany was shocked. ‘How can you be so cruel?’
‘She’ll get some respect when people see her moving stuff through the air. Respect is meat and drink to a witch. Without respect, you ain’t got a thing. She doesn’t get much respect, our Miss Level.’
That was true. People didn’t respect Miss Level. They liked her, in an unthinking sort of way, and that was it. Mistress Weatherwax was right, and Tiffany wished she wasn’t.
‘Why did you and Miss Tick send me to her, then?’ she said.
‘Because she likes people,’ said the witch, striding ahead. ‘She cares about ‘em. Even the stupid, mean, dribbling ones, the mothers with the runny babies and no sense, the feckless and the silly and the fools who treat her like some kind of a servant. Now that’s what I call magic — seein’ all that, dealin’ with all that, and still goin’ on. It’s sittin’ up all night with some poor old man who’s leavin’ the world, taking away such pain as you can, comfortin’ their terror, seein’ ‘em safely on their way… and then cleanin’ ‘em up, layin’ ‘em out, making ‘em neat for the funeral, and helpin’ the weeping widow strip the bed and wash the sheets — which is, let me tell you, no errand for the faint-hearted — and stayin’ up the next night to watch over the coffin before the funeral, and then going home and sitting down for five minutes before some shouting angry man comes bangin’ on your door ‘cos his wife’s havin’ difficulty givin’ birth to their first child and the midwife’s at her wits’ end and then getting up and fetching your bag and going out again… We all do that, in our own way, and she does it better’n me, if I was to put my hand on my heart. That is the root and heart and soul and centre of witchcraft, that is. The soul and centre!’ Mistress Weatherwax smacked her fist into her hand, hammering out her words. ‘The… soul… and… centre!’
‘I’m clever enough to know how you manage not to think of a pink rhinoceros if someone says “pink rhinoceros”,’ she managed to say aloud.
‘Ah, that’s deep magic, that is,’ said Granny Weatherwax.
‘No. It’s not. You don’t know what a rhinoceros looks like, do you?’
Sunlight filled the clearing as the old witch laughed, as clear as a downland stream.
‘That’s right!’ she said.