May 2018 Contest Winner
Liam Hogan is an Oxford Physics graduate and award winning London based writer. His short story "Ana", appears in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 (NewCon Press) and his twisted fantasy collection, "Happy Ending Not Guaranteed", is published by Arachne Press. Find out more at http://
Younger by Liam Hogan
She eased her husband onto the wicker chair. Tucked a blanket over his spindle-legs and wiped the silver trail from his chin, careful, all the while, not to catch his glazed, unseeing eyes. Only when he was settled did the woman take up position behind him, her hand resting on his bony shoulder. Only then did she turn to face the narrow-lipped occupant of this small, woodland cottage.
“You have payment?” the crone demanded.
She nodded, extracting a purse from the folds of her cloak.
The crone took it, emptied the contents over a cluttered bench, sifted through the jewellery and coinage. She peered closely at an agate ring, banded as though it were aflame, too small for anything but a doll, or perhaps a young child. She pocketed a pair of silver coins before sweeping the rest--the string of pearls, the doll’s ring with its hint of an ancient, vindictive curse, the scattering of gold coins, things collected over a long and not unprofitable life--into the velvet bag and thrust it back into the woman’s hands.
“And what would you have me do?” the crone asked.
The visitor stood, nervous but proud. “Alfred’s... that is, my husband’s mind has departed before his body. It is no life for the man he was. And no life for me,” she said with ill-disguised bitterness.
“You wish to remarry?” cackled the crone, “You wish him dead?”
The woman flinched. “No... no! I wish to have my husband back, for his mind to last until his body gives up.”
The crone took the man’s unresisting hand, gently turning it until her fingers rested along the inside of the wrist, testing the pulse and its less frequently felt echoes.
“That may not be a kindness,” she pointed out, letting the feeble hand drop. “In any case, his body is not far behind. Already, it begins to fail.” The crone shrugged. “He is old. His time approaches.”
The woman slumped, shuddered. “Is there nothing...?”
“You knew this would happen,” the crone accused, her crooked finger stabbing the woman’s heart, “knew when you married a man two decades your senior!”
The woman, her eyes still cast to the floor, shook her head. “No... Yes, I knew... and yet, I did not know it would be like this.” She took a deep breath, straightened her back, raised her head in defiance. “Even so, I would live it all again.”
The crone smiled, thinly. “Then I repeat, what would you have me do?”
The woman’s long, elegant neck took on the ruddy glow of the fire in the range. “I hear tell,” she said, softer now, quieter, “that you have a magical potion that makes the drinker young again?”
“Huh,” the crone muttered. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear. It’s not the potion that’s magical, it’s the cup.”
She took an old wooden cup from a shelf, cradled it in her gnarled hands before dipping it into a pail of spring water. “The longer he drinks, the younger he gets.” The crone eyed her visitor, squinted through hazy smoke. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather this for yourself?”
The woman looked down at her tired arms, remembering strong limbs in their place. She had no regrets. Well, except one, though her life had been full even without children.
She gazed upon her husband of forty-two years and sighed. Was it so wrong that she didn’t want to end her days a lonely widow? “Yes, I’m quite sure.”
“Very well,” nodded the crone. “I shall leave you and Alfred in peace.” So saying, she took up her cherry-wood walking stick and hobbled out by the shack’s simple door.
The woman rounded the chair, knelt before the frail man who perched there. Urgently she coaxed Alfred’s lips apart. A tongue, furred yellow and dry as snake skin flickered out and she tilted the cup, frowning as much of what she poured was spilt.
For a long, treacherous moment, nothing happened. Of course it didn’t. Magic cup indeed! If it worked, would not the old crone have been a young crone? It was a distraction while the supposed wise woman hid in woods, so she wouldn’t have to give back the payment.
And yet, the crone had taken so little. Nor was there any need for such elaborate subterfuge. The woman would not have left her husband to chase down a stolen fee, no matter the size, no matter how slow the thief.
As her shoulders slumped, defeated, Alfred blinked. He twisted his head a little until he was looking her way and smiled, rheumy eyes catching the flickering light.
Eagerly she tilted the cup again; his lips pursed and he sipped.
“Thanks,” he whispered, voice hoarse but gentle, the memory of it snagging her breast. “I was so thirsty!”
When he reached up to take the cup she let him, watching as liver spots shrank to tiny dots before vanishing altogether, as trembling hands stilled, as fingers regained their plumpness with the rolling back of the years.
She took a step away, heart thumping. As she watched his hair thickened, remaining grey. But then it always had been grey, even on their wedding day. She, in her youthful prime and he... and he too in his prime, though no youth, no callow lad. No gawkish awkwardness, height reached before breadth could match. No, Alfred had been a grown man, twice her age and comfortable in his body. A distinguished man; confident, well respected. A respect he’d maintained even when he’d become stooped, even when his increased frailty meant the burden fell on her instead.
Twenty years. She’d take the difference in their age from between them. And, if the gods were kind, they would die together.
Twenty-five perhaps... There were so many more widows than widowers. Women lived longer, took better care of their old age. Lived longer and at the end, often as not, lived and died alone.
But no more than that extra five years. She wouldn’t wish upon Alfred what she had suffered this last difficult year.
There were other ways to avoid that, as the crone had crudely pointed out. She shivered. Ways to force a passing, before you became a burden. If you were strong enough. If you acted soon enough. If you were prepared.
They’d never discussed it, Alfred and her. Not even during his declining years. She wondered now if he had thought about it; had realised what lay ahead, for both of them. If he, at least, had planned for that future. Surely he would have done? He was that kind of man. Sensitive, thoughtful. Selfless. And yet, when the end approached... had he clung to life too fiercely, until finally he was no longer able to make the difficult choice?
She blinked tears from her eyes, aware of some change in the room. She stared with wonder at the head of her husband, at the salt and pepper expanse darkening to raven black, the grey confined to his temples and beginning to fade even there. How old was he now? The clothes that had hung loosely about his diminished frame were stretched taut, the skin beneath, long wrinkled, glowed with renewed vigour and health. She’d never seen him this young; not in life, nor even in picture.
His eyes were still locked on hers and she was desperately aware of her own age, her own mortality, her decrepitude. An older husband had kept her young, as she supposed she must have kept him young, until the end, anyway. But now...?
Reaching out to halt his drinking, some impulse drew her fingers instead across his unblemished cheek. She tried to remember when her skin had last been that smooth. A time when she had been even younger than the strapping man before her. When she had been lithe and graceful, her beauty matched only by her innocence. A time when they had first met. Odd that they had been so well matched, despite the many years that separated their births.
His eyes were wide and bright. Full of wonder. Full of love. But that couldn’t last, could it? At what age would she become abhorrent to him? He had known her at her very best, and those days were long gone.
She could not bear the thought of seeing his admiring gaze turn to pity, to disgust.
“Drink, husband mine,” she urged, wracked with emotion, retreating to safety behind his chair, out of sight, as if to busy herself with some trivial task.
When the cup slipped between Alfred’s chubby fingers, too small and uncoordinated to maintain their grasp, when the last drops of water darkened the dirt floor, she let it lie, stooping only to gaze into the angelic babe’s grinning face. At some unseen point, his hair had changed colour once again, turning from sleek black to a silvery blonde. He sat there, rocking back and forth, gurned up at her as she reached and twisted her fingers in his boyish curls. Laughing as he swam in a lake of oversized clothes.
The crone shook her head as she watched the woman carry the infant to the wheeled chair parked outside her hut, as she pushed her mewling husband away. She waited until the clatter of the iron rims faded before she emerged from the thicket.
Foolish woman she thought, as she reclaimed her hut. And yet, it might still work out for the best. The infant Alfred’s mind was incapable of holding all it had once known. His past life, what he remembered of it, would be as a dream; a happy one, she hoped. And his renewed childhood would no doubt be a happy one as well. The woman obviously doted on him, loving him more than any mother, more than any wife.
A child to look after would give her the companionship she desired through her twilight years. Would keep her strong in mind, and body, and soul.
And, in twenty years or so when it was her time to pass, Alfred would once again be a young man, ready to strike out in the world, the faint memories of his previous successes and failures an invaluable guide that should serve him well the second time around.
A happy ending, then.
A small doubt flitted across the crone’s brow.
A happy ending. Just as long as the infant child never played dress-up with his mother-wife-lover’s jewellery, never found that flame agate and, most importantly of all, never tried on that oddly cursed ring.
She just needed to get outside, to get away from Cassie’s hovering; always a step or two behind; always with her helpful household hints; always, always, always. Judith filled her lungs; let the wintery sunbeams soak into her face. She missed being outdoors; missed the long walks she used to take after she’d dropped the kids at school, but before she settled down to tackle her freelance work. It wasn’t that she couldn’t leave Cassie alone. It was even that Cassie...