Millie reached for the jar from the uppermost shelf of the cupboard. As she did so, her arm clicked and her back gave a twinge of protest. She steadied herself against the cupboard until the pain passed and then, carefully, stepped from the chair she had used as a booster to her height.
She hobbled to the kitchen table and, grunting with the effort, twisted the lid from the jar. A musty odour swam up to meet her nose. She inspected the contents closely, squinting into the jar. The leaves were dry – little more than dust by now but they would still work; she was certain of that.
She consulted the page in the dusty old grimoire and then measured out the required amount of leaves and tipped them into the copper pot. The contents were already bubbling along nicely. She put another split log into the flames beneath the cauldron. Squinting at the book, she saw what was next: five drops of blood.
Dismay slumped her shoulders. Where was she supposed to get blood – Oh, you foolish old woman! She cackled to herself. You’re full of the stuff. She took up a bodkin, heated the tip of the blade in the fire and then pressed it into her finger. Bright red drops swelled up instantly and Millie had to battle the impulse to suck her fingertip to ease the pain. She held her finger over the cauldron and squeezed gouts of blood into it, counting as they fell into the bubbling broth, instantly lost. She added an extra one for the pot and then gave the concoction a stir.
All that remained now was the entrails of a rat. She had caught a fine specimen earlier that week; rats were hardly in short supply. She had been keeping it in a cage but it soon became clear that the creature would gnaw his way through the bars in no time at all so she transferred it to a deep earthenware pot and covered it with a couple of her heaviest tomes. Not wishing the animal to die prematurely she had chucked in a heel of bread.
She shuffled towards the earthenware pot, whispering to the rat, letting it know she was coming for it, and imploring it to be a good little rat and not give her any trouble, for she was an old woman and not given to chasing wayward rodents around the house. She pushed the books to the floor. The rat circled the bottom of the pot and then stood on its hind legs. Its nose and whiskers twitched as it looked for a potential escape route. Millie dropped a cloth on its head and then reached into the pot and withdrew the squirming bundle. She held it on her chopping board and bashed at it with her rolling pin until it was still. Gingerly, she removed the cloth and apologised to what was left of the rat. She picked up her carving knife and slit the rat open as if she were opening a letter. She scooped out the coils of the creature’s intestines and slung them into the cauldron. Wiping her hands on her apron she stirred and stirred.
It would soon be done. The elixir of life! Immortality would be hers. Youth would be restored to her old bones. She would be hale and hearty again. And beautiful. The young men would look at her again and vie for her affections.
Millie chuckled. Her little shack was full of the aromatic fumes of her labours. Millie felt hot. She backed away from the fireplace. Dizziness overcame her. She swooned and fell.
Sometime later, Millie blinked awake. She sat up. The fire had gone out and the shack was cold. The cauldron had boiled dry.
Millie uttered an oath but then realised her hands were smooth and supple. Gone were the liver spots, and the arthritis that had swelled her knuckles. She felt her face. That too was smooth. She tore off her cap and pulled her hair in front of her eyes. The white locks were now luxuriant black tresses, as they had been many decades ago. Millie laughed and found she could get to her feet with the minimum of effort and the total absence of pain. She searched the dresser for a looking glass – she had not used such a thing for years; it was too painful to see how age had made its mask on her face, disguising the person she felt inside in the guise of an old crone.
But now, the girl she had been was looking back at her with bright eyes, unclouded by cataracts. And the teeth were all back. The warts were gone and along with them the long curls of hair from her chin.
Millie laughed loud and long in a strong clear voice.
I’ve done it! she cried. I’ve really done it!
She would have to move away, she realised. Folk around here would call her a witch and try to duck her in the river. Superstitious fools! She would be happy to leave them behind and start a new life elsewhere as a beautiful stranger.
She began to put a few things together in a bag for her journey. It was only then that she realised what a state the shack was in. She had never been what you might call house-proud but she was sure the place hadn’t been so filthy before.
It was when she consulted the grimoire to find out how long the effects of the potion might last that she realised she must have been unconscious for longer than one night. The page crumbled at her touch, like a dried leaf.
But I never drank it…she reasoned. No; instead she had inhaled the whole cauldronful as she lay on the floor. She wouldn’t be surprised if the effects of this overdose were permanent.
She wrapped a shawl over her shoulders and then at the door, turned to say one last goodbye to the dirty little shack.
With a back straighter than it had been since 1587, Millie stepped out into the bright sunlight of a new day and a new life.
Instantly, she was hit and killed by an articulated lorry on the A38.