An Excess of Eggs
In which a youngish failure of a wizard and a runaway get into all sorts of scrapes.
Being a wizard had it perks, but cooking wasn’t among them. No matter how hard the wizard tried to produce something edible, all he ever came up with by way of pan or oven was scrambled eggs. It was infinitely depressing to place a seasoned ham in its rack and wait for an hour, only to find, when it was taken out, that it was no longer a beautiful ham, but a glop of yellowish goop. It might have been perfectly cooked (the scrambled eggs always seemed to turn out well) but it wasn’t a ham. And then there was the day the wizard tried to make a roast turkey. He could never figure out why that attempt didn’t result in scrambled eggs. He decided that day, as he stood in the garden coughing and letting the house air out all the resulting sulphurous fumes, that he was sick and tired of the whole business. He needed help, and he had to admit it, or he’d starve.
He told his goldfish so while he was closing up the windows again.
“The only solution I can think of,” he said, trying not to trip over all the books on floor, “is to find an apprentice. Goodness knows I need help anyway.”
“That’s certainly true,” the fish muttered. And then a little louder: “You must not have thought very hard then. What good would another soul be in this house?”
“Well…” said the wizard. “He could run errands. And keep my things dusted. And no one could possibly be worse at this whole cooking thing than I am.”
“We’ll see about that,” said the fish. He thought himself wise and skeptical, and made sure the wizard knew it.
“Don’t be threatening,” replied the wizard. “And please shut up while I’m trying to work.” He managed to get over to his bench without knocking over any stacks. His bench consisted of piles of paper with absent-minded coffee rings on them, and books full of squinty writing, and uncapped pens and other junk. He hunched over it unhappily. Only about a million orders on his list. That always happened in the Spring. People demanded potions and cures and syrups. And they were all for things like hayfever and boredom and other nonsense. Nothing exciting.
The hayfever one exploded in his face at the same moment that thunder cracked overhead. Spluttering and sneezing the wizard felt for a Kleenex. There weren’t any. He wiped his face on his sleeve.
“Red powder. Just perfect. And I’d just done laundry too. And don’t you laugh at me!” he ordered the goldfish. The goldfish was emitting bubbles at intervals while floating on his back.
The wizard glared at him and went questing for a towel.
Outside rain cascaded down the windows in waterfalls. The sky groaned. And the door kept knocking.
The wizard stopped and stared. His door didn’t knock on its own. All lot of other things in his house did, but not the door. It wasn’t that smart. It was only useful for letting people in and keeping weather out. It knocked again, sharply, sounding desperate.
“Hello?” the wizard asked. He felt silly, asking the dumb door that. “Is there something you want?”
“To come in, please,” said the door. It thumped loudly and the knocking stopped.
The wizard had learned (partly from first-hand experience) that if you didn’t pay attention when unusual things happened, they often came back to bite you, sometimes literally. He Paid Attention. He crossed to the door; and, bracing himself against the rain and wind, turned the knob.
A Thing fell in, along with a lot of rain. Slamming the door the wizard shivered and gazed at the Thing.
“Don’t be stupid,” the goldfish called. “It’s quite obvious what it is.”
“Good grief, it’s a boy!” said the fish.
A very wet boy, though. And a muddy one. He lay quite still, leaching water out on the floor, his face obscured by a tangle of hair. He didn’t seem to be breathing. The wizard didn’t know what do to in that case. Potions were his area, not death.
“Not dead,” came the boy’s muffled voice.
The wizard jumped back. Maybe the boy was a mind-reader. “That’s—that’s good,” he stammered, feeling ridiculous.
“Hungry,” said the boy. He sat up, squeezed himself out so that he was standing in a puddle, and starting looking about, like a frightened animal.
“Ah,” said the wizard, feeling a crisis rise. “There’s only fruit and bread I’m afraid…” The Idea struck. He caught it neatly and fingered it. It seemed all right. Granted, the fish would throw a fit…but bother the fish. He glanced at the puddle and at his red-stained sleeve, and continued his quest for towels, all the while feeling his Idea tug at him.
The boy followed. That wasn’t helpful. He was dripping water all over the floor. The wizard tried to tell him this. But the boy wouldn’t listen. He seemed confused, as if he hadn’t ended up where he meant to be.
“What were you doing out in the storm like that?” the wizard asked. He’d managed to locate some stale rolls and a rather wrinkly apple. The boy snatched them and sank his teeth into a roll, which only partly worked.
“Youmph er izzer, arnoo?”
“Sorry,” said the wizard, “didn’t quite catch that.”
The boy swallowed loudly. “You’re the wizard, aren’t you?”
The wizard thought that should have been obvious, but didn’t say so. “And you appear to have run away from something.”
The boy flinched and cowered. “No! Yes. Maybe.” He filled his mouth with apple, glancing everywhere but at the man standing before him.
The wizard couldn’t resist the opportunity. Not being a fortune-teller or a soothsayer, he couldn’t see into the future. He only saw an apprentice ripe for the asking, and solution to all his problems.
“Well,” he said carefully, “this is a special house, and you’ll be safe here. Nothing can get through that door without my allowing it. And while you’re here, you could be my apprentice.” He knew quite well that the goldfish could hear this entire exchange and would think him extremely foolish, but what did fish know anyway?
The boy looked at the mugs washing themselves in the sink, the exploded red powder, the skeleton (who was jittering with more news about the weather), the fuming goldfish, and the spiderwebs. Then he looked at all the magic books and papers.
“For real?” He stuffed the rest of his last roll in and chewed it noisily.
“Yes. Can you cook at all?”
“Well…” The boy gulped. “Sort of. I can make pie…”
“Done!” the wizard cried, and shot away to rescue the sink from overflowing.
The boy happened to be named Moss. The wizard hadn’t known this, even though he’d noticed Moss plenty of times, lingering around his stepmother’s shop. He also happened to be an excellent apprentice, both in magic and cooking, even though the cooking part was all his own doing. (If anyone who came to see the wizard asked, he replied vaguely that Moss was his apprentice, just to make things easier and less embarrassing for himself.) The wizard no longer woke up with dread in his stomach at the thought of yet another breakfast of eggs and coffee that tasted like mud-in-water. Eggs were no longer the bane of his existence. Moss subdued them into pies and scones and tarts, and the wizard ate like an emperor. Besides which, now that he had help, orders were pouring in, bringing money with them.
“I say, Moss,” called the wizard absently one day. He was alternating between counting the week’s earnings and wiping his nose on a large handkerchief. “All the purple flowers are disappearing because of you.” (Moss had gotten into the habit of bringing in an armload of flowers from the garden every day and decorating with them. The flowers didn’t object, because the wizard has requested of them to grow, but the boy was overdoing it.)
Moss dropped them on the table and gazed at them fondly. “But they’re purple!”
“And they make me sneeze!” said the goldfish.
“Don’t be silly, fish can’t sneeze! You can’t even smell them,” said Moss, trying to find something to put the flowers in.
“’Don’t be silly,” the fish mocked. “How would you know that? You’re not a fish!”
The skeleton screeched, a sure sign of bad weather. It had been raining a lot and the paths were all muddy. The wizard eyed the skeleton and frowned. He had just finished a potion and it needed to be delivered, but the thought of mud on top of his cold, which was fairly bad, send his spirits right into the dumps.
“Moss, come here and forget about those. You’ve got to deliver this to the silversmith’s daughter. Back door, mind, not the front, otherwise she’ll find out.” He handed Moss the parcel.
“What is it?” The boy took it carefully and tucked it under his arm.
“A potion.” Moss was looking at him imploringly. He was an inquisitive boy and might very well open the package anyway. But the wizard decided not to tell him. “Now go, before it’s too late.” He dissolved into a fit of sneezing.
Moss took the parcel, a coat, an umbrella, and himself out into the rain. Whatever the wizard had sent with him, it felt warm under his coat, nestled away from the wet. The path turned from muddy gravel to paved road under his feet. Nasty of his master to send him out like this. And he wouldn’t even say what the potion was for. Moss decided to have a look.
The potion was purple. The wizard in his haste had forgotten a label, so Moss didn’t know what it was, but he hadn’t seen something so enticing in ages. The color made him think of grapes and plums and candied violets (a rare treat which he adored) and irises (which made him think of his stepmother’s house, which he adored less). It looked delicious. A little taste couldn’t hurt him. It might even make him feel better. He uncorked the top and tasted it.
Beautiful warmth flooded through him like sunlight, down to his feet. He needed more. He took another sip. Just as wonderful as the first time. He tipped down the rest of the potion. Of course, there was the problem of what the wizard would do to him. But that didn’t matter. Nothing did at the moment. He stood blissfully in the mist, thinking happy thoughts.
A figure squeaked toward him on a bicycle. Moss had never seen someone more lovely. She had freckles on her face and rain in her hair. She’d thrown her coat over the breadbasket between the handles. She frowned at Moss.
“So you’re all right after all!” she said irritably. “I wondered where you’d gone. What happened?”
It was Brenda, of course. Brenda was just an apprentice in his stepmother’s shop. Only she looked much more beautiful now. He couldn’t think why he’d never seen her this way before.
“I drank a thing,” he said, not really meaning to. But he had to tell Brenda everything. “The wizard won’t be happy with me.” He gestured with the empty bottle and wrapping.
“I’ve got to deliver his order anyway, so just come with me,” said Brenda and set off, not bothering to wait for Moss, who was following because he suddenly found he loved her.
The wizard, when Brenda and Moss had tumbled in, took the empty things and dropped them on the table.
“You knew this would happen,” hissed the goldfish.
“Oh, shut up,” said the wizard and tried to think.
How could he reverse the effects of a love potion? The one he’d sent with Moss was a very strong one, not to mention well-paid for. The son of a wealthy silversmith wanted Brenda for his own, but had encountered the difficulty of a lack of affection in her part. He’d ordered a love potion that he would sneak into her drink. That potion had now assimilated into Moss.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” he said. “You’ve made a mess! And I have to fix it!”
Moss didn’t reply. He was looking adoringly at Brenda. The fish made a gagging sound.
“I sincerely apologize, Brenda.” The wizard ignored his fish and strode to the door, which he opened in what he hoped was a gentlemanly way. “You’d better go. I’ll take care of this.” He glowered past her at Moss. Moss didn’t notice.
Brenda’s leaving (which she did in a hurry and with a frustrated glance at her new adorer) threw Moss into a fit of gushings and flushings. “She’s so beautiful. How did I never see that before? I can’t think why I never noticed her. But I certainly do now. I wonder if she likes me. I certainly like her. In fact, I love her. In fact—”
“Be quiet!” The wizard wasn’t prone to rudeness, but everyone and everything was getting on his nerves. He made a beeline for the staircase. “I’m going upstairs to have a think.”
A few seconds later his door slammed. Moss was left alone with the goldfish and the chattering skeleton. Not that he noticed any of those things, of course.
The consequences that came of Moss’s ingestion started the next day. The wizard descended to the kitchen to find the area a veritable sty of spills and flour. The scones had burned, the ham tasted of rubber, and the coffee resembled muddy water.
“What were you thinking, Moss?” demanded the wizard, as his horde of magic mice scuttled around squeaking and cleaning.
“Brenda,” said Moss.
Nothing had changed the following day. No consumable anything was produced at all. Thoughts of Brenda had driven all the useful cooking knowledge from the boy’s brain. The wizard found himself reduced to eating scrambled eggs again. Moss could no longer tame them. Things looked dire. The wizard decided he must Take Steps. (It was much like Paying Attention, but in a different sort of way.)
“Moss,” he said, once again magicking the mice away with a flick of his wrist, “this is unacceptable. We’ve got to do something about this.”
“You could invite Brenda here,” the boy replied in a dreamy voice.
Thoughts of the ensuing chaos, were such a thing to occur, nearly made the wizard have a convulsion. His goldfish laughed nastily.
“Actually,” he coughed, “that’s not the plan. The plan is…well…I’m going to send you to school.” It wasn’t something he particularly wanted to do. He still needed help, and Moss had proved to be invaluable, even as an apprentice to the wizard’s magic.
“Will Brenda be there?” He obviously hadn’t heard properly.
“No, she won’t.”
That arrested the boy’s attention instantly. “What?” His face lapsed into a lovelorn contortion of sadness. “But…I love her! I adore her! I can’t be away from her!”
The wizard let out a gigantic sigh. “It’s just the effect of that potion, Moss. It’ll wear off in time.” But would it? He had a sudden horrible picture of a besotted Moss trying to carry on through life and constantly making messes because the potion hadn’t worn away.
“You’re to go this afternoon,” he said, pushing that image away, “to the finest cooking school in the country. I already packed your things, since you were, ah, busy.”
“But I can’t go!” Moss insisted, pleadingly. “What would Brenda do without me?”
The wizard decided not to answer that. His goldfish was snickering. He rolled his eyes and endured an entire half hour of heart-broken moans from his apprentice. The cart came just in time. Moss was just trying to make a vanishing spell work on himself (so he could hide and not have to leave Brenda). The wizard noticed—or rather the goldfish did—and laid hold of Moss and threw him out. He had to put a spell on the door so the boy couldn’t get back in.
“It’ll be good for you,” he said through the keyhole. “You’ll learn a great deal, and then…and then Brenda might like you more.” He gulped. He wasn’t much good at lying.
“You think so?” said Moss. The wizard heard him trot down the path to the road. The horse whinnied and the cart started. And the wizard didn’t hear from Moss again for a long time.