The Solution

Susan Cornford

Alice’s eyes snapped open and nothing but darkness surrounded her. The nightlight must have gone out for some reason. It wasn’t exactly that she was afraid of the dark, just that she was more comfortable being able to see where everything was when she woke up and the main switch was out of her reach. And she was cold; she sighed at having thrown off the blankets again. But there was a breeze and her bedroom was hermetically sealed against drafts. Come to think of it, she was standing up, definitely putting weight on her feet, and that was not right.

Slowly and carefully, like a tightrope walker, Alice extended both hands to find out what she could feel. Her right hand touched smooth wood that she gratefully took hold of in a firm grasp. Then she turned to grab this lifeline with her left hand as well. Her mind edged back from the border of panic, her heart rate gradually slowed and her panting lungs slowly decided they didn’t need to work so hard. A cackling laugh burst out of her mouth. It’s a good thing there’s no one else around to hear me sound like a madwoman, she thought.

Of course. She was holding the banister at the top of the stairs. This thought sent her heart rate and breath soaring again. She’d woken up just on the edge of falling down the whole flight of stairs! Still keeping her two-handed grip, she lifted her left foot and felt for the next step down. Her foot landed far too soon and she found she could shuffle sideways in a circle. She was at the bottom of the stairs. Well, if she was going to sleepwalk, at least her body knew its way around well enough to keep her safe.

She felt almost ordinary again now that she knew she was safe, so she reached out her left hand and flicked on the switch. Light flooded the entry hall as if nothing had happened. As she was already downstairs, Alice decided that a cup of tea was definitely needed, so she headed for the kitchen.

As she waited for the kettle to boil, Alice reflected wryly that there was no need to wonder what had driven her subconscious mind literally to “take drastic steps”. She was in a terrible situation and completely helpless to make things better. It hadn’t been so bad to watch her powers wane as she got older, not until Ursula returned from whatever hell she had inhabited for the past thousand years. They had been enemies since the beginning of time. Well, since that incident with the wizard, beloved by both of them, who was torn into two pieces during their tug-of-war and then disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Anyway, for some reason best known to herself, Ursula was back. All Alice wanted at this stage of life was a nice, quiet decline into peaceful non-existence. But Ursula wouldn’t let her rest and Alice could only match her spell for spell, which resulted in a stalemate that had a very slippery feel. She found she’d brewed and poured her cup of tea, so she took a blissful sip and tried to think of some way to solve her problems, which now included sleepwalking.

Alice had to admit that alligators and snakes were not her favourite things even though they couldn’t do her any harm. So, trudging through the swamp with them lurking all around was not her idea of a vacation, even on the outskirts of the famed New Orleans. But it was the only way she could get to see the Voodoo Queen who was the sole person she thought could possibly help her. Marie (they always seemed to be called Marie) had agreed to an appointment in the old graveyard at midnight. So, brushing aside yet another creepy piece of Spanish moss, Alice pushed open the creaking wrought iron gate and made her way to the tallest monument she could see.

“Good evening, Alice.”

Alice turned around to see a tall, dark-skinned woman with a large snake coiled around her neck, like a boa.

“Good evening, Marie…and friend.”

Marie let go a full-bodied laugh. “Maurice gets lonely if I go out without him. I promise he is well-behaved.”

The two ladies seated themselves on tombstones and Alice explained her problems with aging, and Ursula, and unhappiness at being rousted out of her pleasant retirement. Marie listened carefully and finally said, “I think I can help you. If you will get me some of Ursula’s hair, I know how to make an effigy that can be burned, causing the original to be consumed in the fires of Hell.”

“We are in luck. It just so happens that I brought with me some of the hair I pulled out of her head in the fight we had over the wizard. I always knew that it would come in handy someday.”

Marie took the hair and put it carefully into her skirt pocket. They spoke some more about price and Alice handed her the last of the golden apples that were left over from her Grecian glory days. The effigy would be ready to collect at midnight the next night. Alice happily waved goodbye to Marie and Maurice.

Alice’s eyes snapped open and she saw the nightlight shining softly all around her bedroom. She felt sure that she would never be plagued by sleepwalking again. Snuggling down into her bedclothes, she recalled with pleasure the visit she had made to Ursula’s house, carrying the wax-soaked effigy in her pocket. Knowing Ursula would have a fire burning to heat her cauldron, Alice had boldly walked over and thrown it in. The effigy and Ursula had both burned brightly; quickly they were gone.

Alice shuffled around in bed and Maurice popped his head out of the blankets. She hadn’t realized that he was the reincarnation of the wizard they had fought over so long ago. When he crawled out of the fire at Ursula’s house and up around her neck to whisper in her ear, Alice knew she would need to grow fonder of snakes.

Susan Cornford is a retired public servant, living in Perth, Western Australia. She has had pieces published or forthcoming in Across the Margin, AHF Magazine, Altered Reality Magazine, Antipodean Science Fiction, Fudoki Magazine, Mystery Tribune, The Were-Traveler, Thriller Magazine, and others.