March 2000

from the story "wondrous strange"

by joshua weiss, published here in serial format. please note: mad hettie created by neil gaiman.

3 - in which we meet the oldest woman still alive, she displays her stubborn nature, and Benjamin reveals the key to her heart - literally

Chalk Farm station was as filthy as ever. It had been a fairly long trip that morning, and Benjamin had passed from station to station as quickly as possible - he had the uneasy feeling that an unusually high number of people were watching him, judging him, wondering what he was doing among them. He had never felt comfortable on the tube - the whole idea of the thing repulsed him, being trapped beneath the earth with hundreds of complete strangers, none of whom gave a damn that he was alive, none of whom would remember him in the morning. But Benjamin viewed the tube as a necessary evil - something required in order to get around the city of his birth, and though it had, in recent years, become more difficult to steal one's way onto the trains, Benjamin was indeed a sly creature, and could work his way through the most difficult of situations.

And of all the stations in the city, Benjamin liked the Chalk Farm station by far the least. The platform itself was impossibly unclean from years of middle-aged drunkards returning home after a night's intoxication and promptly regurgitating their precious Guinness all over the ground, which was bumpy and uneven from all the traffic. It was completely crowded and completely empty in turns, and Benjamin had had the misfortune of stepping off the train (to that ever-genial woman's recorded voice urging passengers to mind the gap, please) during one of the busier phases of the day.

With some degree of difficulty, Benjamin maneuvered his way through the madding crowd and ducked outside. He knew exactly where to go - it had only been a few days since he had last seen her, and he walked with great purpose - he had to save the life of his love.

She was sitting precisely where he knew she would be, dressed in rags the colors of vomit and catsup, with just a touch of darkness every now and again. She wore an oversized gardening hat low on her head, covering her wrinkled face and tattered grey hair and appearing, by all rights and purposes, to be lost in sleep. But Benjamin knew better.

-- Mad Hettie, he said simply, staring fiercely at the woman sitting in front of him.

-- You're back, are ye boyo? she answered, not looking up at him at all.

-- Yes, Mad Hettie, he said, and I need your help.

-- I told ye you would, didn't I boyo?

-- Yes, Mad Hettie, he replied with just a touch of resignation, yes you did.

-- And now ye're back, she announced triumphantly, finally looking up at him through one good eye and one eye that seemed to be perpetually half-closed. So what are ye needin'?

-- Answers.

-- Answers? Boyo, you haven't asked any questions yet. An' besides, I've been 'ere for two-hundr'd an' seventy-three years now - wot makes ye think ye're so damn special? Why should I help you?

-- You have a good heart, Mad Hettie.

-- Ay, an' what do you know about hearts anyway. Off with ye! she shouted, and returned to her original posture.

-- I know you have one, Mad Hettie, and I know where you hid it.

It was many moments before the woman known as Mad Hettie lifted her gaze ever so slowly to meet his. The two stayed there for a moment or seven, each firm in their conviction not to be the one to speak first. Finally, Mad Hettie licked her dry lips very slowly and deliberately, and then left her mouth slightly agape before she spoke quietly:

-- Then take me there, boyo, an' ye'll get the answers ye want. Ye may not like 'em, but ye'll get 'em. But so help me, if ye're lyin' to me--

-- Follow me.

Back at the East End flat, the boy called Sebastian continued to sleep softly.




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