Minneke’s mother handed her the psalter.
“That you will find restitution,” the frail woman whispered.
Then she was gone.
In her grief, Minneke forgot about her mother’s parting gift. Years later, though, she found the book at the bottom of her storage trunk while she packed. Her father had recently died, and her younger brother, Jaap, inherited the family’s antique business. In a move Jaap called “shrewd,” he commandeered the upper floors for the shop and his own growing family, and forced his sister to live in the basement. As she descended the stairs, Minneke wondered why her mother had spent so much time in this dark, dank warren.
But the book of Psalms stayed in the trunk.
As her brother’s business flourished above, Minneke toiled below. She made candles and scarves to sell at the market in an attempt to supplement Jaap’s meagre allowance. All day long, she could hear his purse jingling with the coins of the city’s vain merchant class. In the evenings the rooms upstairs filled with the sounds of family suppers and holiday feasts. Meals that Minneke was never invited to attend.
Her mother’s words eventually came back to her, and she went looking for the psalter.
When Minneke opened the book, though, she didn’t find Old Testament vengeance. Instead, she discovered page after page of handwritten incantations. Strange syllables and odd phrases that her mother promised would bend objects and people, even the fabric of reality, to the whisperer’s will.
Minneke crossed herself and stashed the volume away.
But one evening, after a particularly loud party upstairs, Minneke sought the book again. She chose a spell from the first page. After lighting a candle, she spoke her mother’s words: “That it will feel good to burn.”
A nearby moth flew directly into the flame and then fell to the table. Minneke watched as the creature, its wings still smoking, tried to crawl back to the light. She wanted to put her own hand in the flame. But the book had promised that such feelings would pass with enough concentration and a little port wine.
Minneke swept the moth away and kept reading until the candle flickered and died.
A few weeks later, Minneke bewitched a scarf. First, she made the garment persuade someone to purchase it for twice the price. Then, for good measure, she had it tell the new owner to wrap it a bit too tightly around his neck. As the purple-faced buyer walked away, she grinned and fingered the silver coin in her pocket.
Minneke’s skill, and confidence, improved as she made her way through the book.
The following winter, tragedy struck the household. Jaap and his wife had always been healthy. But as the February rains blew in, they began to pass by their winter coats without a glance. They’d venture unprotected into the raw weather and then return soaking wet, seemingly unaware of what they’d done. The couple succumbed to pneumonia within days of each other.
At the funeral, Minneke wore her sister-in-law’s finest scarf but no one noticed.
Jaap’s son, Barend, inherited the family business. He and his older sister, Agatha, didn’t know “Crazy Aunt Minnie” well, as she was rarely seen upstairs. After some discussion, the siblings decided their reclusive relative needed to find her own home.
“Agatha, you’ll move into the basement,” Barend said, “until we find you a husband.”
“Father would approve,” said Agatha.
“He should’ve kicked that weird hag out years ago.”
Minneke heard this conversation because she had snuck upstairs and enchanted a silver decanter. The spell relayed any words said in the vicinity to a glass in the basement. To listen, Minneke simply held the vessel to her ear. She wasn’t surprised by what she heard. For years, she’d listened—without any need for witchcraft—as her niece and nephew threw loud and frequent tantrums upstairs.
Minneke opened her mother’s book and turned toward the back.
When Barend and Agatha knocked on the basement door, their aunt invited them to sit at a small table. A porcelain teacup and a curved dagger were the only objects on its surface.
Barend leaned forward. “Auntie, we’ve been talking.”
Minneke closed her eyes. “That the thirst will be unquenchable,” she whispered.
Her nephew quickly swallowed the teacup’s contents.
Minneke then turned to Agatha. “That the blade will find its way.”
The young woman grabbed the dagger and buried it in her own belly.
Minneke stood and pulled a pocket watch from her apron. She performed a spell from deep in the book, one she had never dared try before.
“That time will slow a century.”
In front of her, the pair seemed to freeze. Flecks of white spittle bubbled on Barend’s lips, proof that the hemlock was already working. Agatha gazed down at the rubied hilt protruding from her belly, and the crimson stain spreading across her dress.
Minneke set the timepiece on the table.
The feckless siblings would spend the next hundred years slowly dying in the pocket of altered time she’d created, with only the sight of each other’s misery to break the painful monotony.
Even a century, she thought, wouldn’t improve their value.
Minneke hauled her trunk up the stairs. She cast a vanishing spell on the basement door but wondered why she bothered. Even unenchanted, the door had always seemed invisible to most people. Minneke emptied the shop’s coin purse into her trunk and then selected a few choice items from the shelves.
When she left, she turned toward the harbour.
A week later, a well-dressed woman boarded De Liefde, a ship bound for the colony of New Amsterdam. She travelled alone and carried only one piece of luggage. When the captain asked how she hoped to start a new life with so little, she didn’t say a word. Instead, she held up the book she carried in her left hand. The volume, bound in black leather, had simple gold etching on the cover. It read: “Mother’s Psalms.”
Clark Boyd lives and works in the Netherlands. His fiction and essays have appeared in Scare Street, High Shelf Press, Havok, Fatal Flaw Magazine, and various DBND horror anthologies. He’s currently at work on a book about windmills. Or cheese. Maybe both.