People sometimes called her a fairy, when they were trying to be nice, but she was a witch. She preferred accuracy to flattery.
Many people came to her door. The latest customer was a familiar type: broken down, carrying her sorrows with her everywhere. She was good at hiding it. She was well-dressed and well-spoken and you could only tell by a slight stoop to her shoulders and a single tear that hid in the corner of her eye—all the other tears had dried up.
She asked meekly how she could get a child of her own. She was, she said, prepared to pay.
The witch knew a few secrets. She did not sell children (people tended to get tetchy about that kind of thing) but she knew of a dragon that one could slay, and when you devoured its heart—
“I don’t know anything about slaying dragons,” said the woman, with a crease between her eyebrows.
There were other options. She had half a magic apple, but you never wanted to go halves with magic. The other piece of the apple had been eaten by a chicken which went on to produce half an egg—
“I think we’re getting off-topic,” said the woman.
The witch thought about turning her into a toad and decided not to. That kind of thing was bad for business. Instead, she went to the pantry and fetched a jar containing a single barleycorn.
“Do I need to eat it?” said the woman.
“No. Plant it and water it and tend it. Twelve shillings, please.” She added quickly, “No refunds.”
The woman came back some days later, and the witch sighed when she saw her through the window. But when she met her at the door, she saw that the woman was happy. She stood straighter and moved with a purpose and a care, protecting something in her pocket.
“Is she supposed to be this small?” The woman held out something in her hand. The witch looked at it, and then she went and looked at the jar, and went through her books trying to figure out where she’d gotten the jar.
The woman’s barleycorn was now a tiny girl, one inch high. Not even as tall as her thumb. It was like interacting with a flea. The woman hugged her daughter with the crook of a finger. The inch-girl was quite happy to ride in her hand. She seemed too solid to be a fairy, which tended to be ghostly and cold. She danced and gamboled naked, because the woman was still working on clothes for her. The inch-girl would need gossamer-thin material, with stitches smaller than an ant’s head. She could slide her slender hand straight through the stitches of normal fabric.
The original barleycorn had belonged to the witch’s predecessor, and she sorely regretted now that she had never asked about it or studied it. Perhaps its husk had always cradled a fetus the size of a mosquito. Now she’d never know.
“I was wondering if she’d grow,” said the woman.
The witch looked at the inch-girl and said, “Maybe?”
From that point on, the woman and her miniature daughter visited nearly every day. The witch dove into her grimoire, searching for more information, and when that failed her she turned to books of children’s fairy tales. She looked with new eyes at her stale shelves of ingredients. She might have anything in her sea of newts’ eyes and toads’ tails.
But even more than the new draw to her collection, she found herself looking forward to the visits. People usually only came to buy something, or to attempt burning her at the stake. The woman and her daughter came mostly so the woman could sit in the rocking chair and talk, while her daughter played in the field of her lap. The witch held the inch-girl a few times, but it made her nervous. She seemed so fragile, and she never did grow.
And then one day the woman missed a visit. When she did come, the witch could tell immediately that something was wrong. The last tear was missing from the woman’s eye. She’d shed them all and her face was a desert of want.
They looked for the inch-girl. The witch used her scrying-bowl and they scoured the woman’s house and tromped around in her yard, but there was always the fear that their great feet would land in the wrong place, or their booming voices would frighten the inch-girl away. Time went on, but the woman insisted that the inch-girl was still out there—somewhere. The witch had theories. She could have been snapped up by an owl or stolen away for a freak show. Or maybe the fairies had taken her, and she had forgotten living with humans. That happened to people who were fairy-stolen. Even if you got their bodies back, you might not get their minds.
A year passed. The inch-girl had loved flowers, so the woman planted all kinds and the witch did too. All around their houses, marking them out, in case she ever came back and needed a sign. Every morning they sat on a bench in the misty twilight, as the dawn came and the buds opened into an explosion of color.
“She’ll be grown up soon,” the woman said.
“What do you think she’ll look like?”
“A fairy queen,” said the witch, “made of spun glass, with wings like a fly’s and a train of courtiers dressed like flowers. Or maybe,” she said, “maybe, she’ll come back riding on a swallow, with her skin burned brown, and a cloak of feathers, and a story for us. Such a story as you never heard.”
“I like that one,” said the woman, and they sat and they waited together as the sun burned off the fog.
Sarah Allison is a writer in Florida, currently working on a Masters in Library Science. She enjoys fairy tales and tracking down the origins of folklore. Her short fiction has appeared in Liguorian Magazine.