They say that no good deed goes unpunished, and Ellen was inclined to agree with them. She already felt like she was being punished, and she hadn’t even technically started her good deed yet. Come to think of it, she was doing someone a favor by doing their good deed for them, which might count extra. She was probably doomed.
"Thanks again so much for doing this! I owe you one," Amanda said yet again. Ellen wedged her phone between her shoulder and her ear so she could use both hands to make a hard left turn.
"Stop thanking me and tell me again where the heck I'm going. I just went left on Maplewood and now I'm looking for what again? Pheasant Street?”
"Partridge Road," Amanda corrected. Then she rattled off several more turns and street names. "It's the last house on Fairwick, on the right. Be sure to knock super loud - Mrs. Wilkins doesn't hear so well, and the doorbell is broken."
Amanda did volunteer work providing assistance to the elderly, and today was her weekly appointment go help Mrs. Wilkins make dinner. But there had been some kind of emergency involving a sick cat, and she had practically begged Ellen to fill in for her. Ellen had suggested she just bring the woman pizza instead, but was informed that just wouldn't do. Plus there wasn't a pizza place anywhere for miles because apparently Mrs. Wilkins lived on the very fringes of human civilization inside a labyrinth of poorly maintained and inadequately marked dirt roads designed specifically to get Ellen lost and destroy her car’s suspension.
Ellen was still unclear who owned the sick cat, and why it was Amanda's problem, and as her car shuddered its way over the uneven dirt and rocks she wished for the tenth time that she had just offered to take the cat to the vet instead.
"Did you say left or right onto Edgemont?" Ellen asked, but never got her answer because she lost her signal and the call cut out. "Perfect," she said.
Eventually, Ellen found the fabled Fairwick Lane and a charming little house with a lovely garden that practically screamed that it was owned by a nice old lady. Ellen grabbed the two large bags of groceries from the back seat, walked up to the front door, and hammered on it like she meant to break it down.
The door opened almost instantly. The woman on the other side did indeed appear to be elderly, what with the wild gray hair and wrinkled skin, but while Ellen had pictured someone who looked like her smiling, stoop-backed grandmother, this person was straight-backed, easily six feet tall, not smiling, and was brandishing the largest ladle that Ellen had ever seen. She could probably bludgeon someone to death with that ladle. It looked for a moment like Ellen might be that someone.
"Do I know you?" the old woman asked.
"Mrs. Wilkins? Amanda sent me to fill in for her helping you out today. I've brought groceries."
The woman studied her and the bags suspiciously for several moments.
"Is that fresh ginger I smell?" she asked.
"Yes?" answered Ellen.
"Very well," the old woman said, lowered the ladle slightly, and then stepped aside. Ellen entered the house.
The inside of the house didn't match her expectations either. In spite of all the windows she'd seen as she'd walked up the path to the door, hardly any sunlight seemed to make its way inside. Instead of quaint knickknacks and quilts and such, the inside of the house was decorated mostly with shadows and lurking pieces of uncomfortable-looking furniture.
"What did you say your name was again?" the woman asked as they made their way to the kitchen.
"You may call me Mara."
The kitchen was huge, and contained several very professional-looking modern appliances that clashed weirdly with utensils, pots, and pans that looked practically medieval. For the second time that day Ellen was forced to re-assess how large a ladle could be - there was one hanging from a hook near the oven that looked like it should be used for jousting on horseback. The less said about the size of some of the knives the better.
"Your arrival is at a fortuitous time, Ellen," Mara said. "I am at a critical point in the process, and could use an extra set of hands."
Ellen was about to offer to put away some of the groceries, when her attention was transfixed by the enormous...she wanted to think "pot," but her brain wouldn't let her think anything but "cauldron."
Mara set aside her ladle and stirred the contents of the...vessel with an ordinary wooden spoon.
"Second cabinet on the right, second shelf from the bottom - unicorn blood," Mara said.
It took a moment for Ellen to register that she'd been asked to fetch something, and self-consciously leapt into action before her thoughts caught up with her and said what kind of what?! By that point she'd already opened the specified cabinet, and found herself looking at several shelves of jars and vials of various sizes, all filled with liquids of various colors that tended mostly towards the red neighborhood of the color palette.
Ellen's first thought was "shouldn't all of this be refrigerated?," which was really very nice of her brain to try to distract her, but then she went and ruined it by thinking "Oh my god these are all full of blood I'm in the house of a crazy person Amanda I'm going to kill you -"
"Now, if you please," Mara said, and Ellen jolted back into action and scanned the alphabetized containers until she reached "U," and sure enough there was a little jar right between "Undine" and "Utahraptor" that was exactly what Mara had asked for. Ellen wordlessly brought it over to her.
"One teaspoon," Mara said, and Ellen dutifully measured it out and poured it into the - well, let’s not be coy about it anymore - cauldron.
"Next cabinet over to the right, second shelf from the bottom - unicorn hair," Mara said. Ellen fetched the requested jar and stood there holding it until Mara said "Open," at which point she unscrewed the lid and held it up. Mara reached in for a single silvery hair and dropped it into the mixture.
"First cabinet on the left, bottom shelf - unicorn tears," Mara said.
"Are we making a unicorn, then?" Ellen asked, surprised to hear herself speak, but less surprised that she was obviously starting to crack up under the strain. "Only this seems to be all of the pieces of one."
"Don't be absurd, child," Mara said, "you can't make a unicorn in the middle of the day - you need moonbeams and starlight. And a pair of unicorns," she added with a slight shift in her tone that left Ellen unsure if that last part might be meant as a joke.
"Of course, how silly of me," said Ellen.
"Unicorn tears," Mara repeated, and Ellen belatedly went to indicated cabinet.
"I'm afraid you're all out," Ellen said, holding up the empty bottle.
"Damn," said Mara. "How about Kelpie?"
"No...a lot of these are empty, actually. I've got Manticore?"
"Not salty enough."
"Shark?" Ellen asked. No, wait a minute. This was too much. Imaginary and extinct animals were one thing but, "Wait, surely sharks don't cry," she said.
"Of course they do. Nothing sadder in the world than fish. Cry all the time, they do. That's why the ocean is so salty. Regardless, they won't do either. No, I'm afraid there's nothing for it. You stir this while I go find a book of sad enough poems."
This prompted so many questions that Ellen was unable to decide which one to ask, and so she just silently took the spoon and stirred while Mara disappeared into the next room. Ellen could hear her pulling books off shelves and flipping pages, muttering "no, no," under her breath the whole time. Then, "Aha!"
Mara returned holding a slim leather-bound book. She snatched the empty bottle marked "Unicorn" from the cabinet of tears, and held out both objects to Ellen.
"Now, I have to warn you that these are really, really sad poems, because your average unicorn is a heartless bastard," Mara said. "Try the black one first - he's probably the softest of the lot of them." Ellen just stared at her. "Back yard. You can't miss them," Mara said.
And so Ellen found herself shooed out the back door holding a book of poems in one hand and an empty bottle in the other. It was disorienting to be back out in the sunshine, but far, far more disorienting to suddenly be staring at several unicorns. Most of them were contentedly munching on the grass or some flowers, though the pure white one farthest from the house was rearing back on its hind legs and pawing at the air with a rainbow behind it. It dropped back to all fours when it saw her, though, and Ellen thought it looked faintly embarrassed about the whole thing.
"Well then," Ellen said, as she turned to the black unicorn and flipped open the book and began to read aloud.
The poems were not sad. The poems were soul-rending. Ellen had to stop several times as tears blurred her vision and sobs stole her breath. In fact, she was so distraught that she almost failed to notice that the black unicorn had finally started to cry as well, and after she stumbled forward to collect the tears she impulsively threw her arms around the animal's neck and bawled into its mane for a while. It was just after she'd managed to compose herself enough to collect the tears that her phone rang.
"Hello?" she said, her voice still raw from crying.
"Ellen?" Amanda's voice sounded relieved, "Oh my god, are you okay? What happened? Mrs. Wilkins called and said she was worried because you still weren't there!"
"I'm fine. Poems...so sad...," she babbled, "Wait, what? I've been here for at least an hour!"
"With Mrs. Wilkins!" Ellen said. Then she replayed the conversation in her mind that she'd had when she first arrived, and realized that at no point did the woman actually say that she was Mrs. Wilkins. "But this is the right house," she said aloud, "Fairwick Lane, last house on the left?"
"Last house on the right!" Amanda said. "There is no house on the left! Where the heck are you?"
Ellen looked into the eyes of the unicorn standing in front of her and felt as if she might start crying again.
"Lost?" she said.
The unicorn nodded, and shed another tear.