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What's in a Name

Sarah G. Matthews was born and raised in the Midwestern U.S., but she leaped over to the East Coast for work. Both places feel like home to her. In addition to writing fiction and doing software development, she practices aikido, runs (a little faster than she used to!), and likes to learn languages for both humans and computers.

The name collection started as insurance.
The elder witch got by on dribbles of her power. She played the part of the doddery old healer, the minor magician. She peddled tinctures and told her neighbors to call her Granny Burdock, or just Granny, please. The villagers introduced themselves in turn, friendly, unsuspecting. With each new name, the elder witch would smile and say, oh, how very charmed she was to meet them. And then she would retire to her hut at the edge of the village, and she would open a tattered book and record the new name.
The villagers had no idea of the power they were giving the elder witch. Names carried the essence of a thing, and the elder witch's magic acted through them, tapping into hearts and minds and bodies. If the elder witch collected enough names, she could put half the village under her thrall. Could be useful one day. Could be needed.
In the previous village, they'd learned that she could charm monsters out of trees and flight from the crows, even though they hardly knew her, and she hardly knew them. They'd almost caught her and burned her at the stake. (It seemed to be a trend among fearful folk. Burning things. Pyromaniacs, the lot of them.) The elder witch had fled under a gibbous moon with nothing but a basketful of books.
So this time, the witch collected names. Just in case.
Months passed. Years. Her neighbors kept greeting her. Marietta dropped by for tea. Frisk supplied her with unending blueberry pies. Bruin marveled at how the elder witch's potions revived his sickened children. Jaune and Randall welcomed her to their hearths. Corrin asked after her creaky old bones, and the children (Risa, Hansel, Gwen) admired her silliest cantrips: flower buds bloomed in her hands; wine changed to water; lights conjured at the elder witch's fingertips, colorful and twinkling.
The name collecting became less of a precaution and more of a habit. The elder witch liked the way spidery writing filled the page, the way the alphabet linked together to form hundreds of different people. The names were beautiful, like seashells, or like flowers picked and preserved from her garden. They carried stories. They were admired, but never used for magic. The elder witch ran out of names to collect--until, one day, a newcomer arrived.
The stranger came with hollowed cheeks and a battered rucksack. She had dirt on her nose and snarls in her hair. A scratch above her eye. Clothes worn thin, holes in her boots. The elder witch invited her over for treatment, because truly, she needed it. She looked like a starveling. The girl followed the witch home on silent feet, and the elder witch served stew and called it magic.
That cracked a smile out of the girl--wry and small, but present, all the same.
The elder witch smiled back. "What's your name, dearie?"
The girl hesitated. "What's yours?"
This gave the elder witch pause. She eyed the hunting knife strapped to the girl's belt; the splotch of skin on her arm that looked suspiciously like a burn mark; and the careful way the girl watched her. This, thought the elder witch, was a person who knew the value of a name. This may be someone who could threaten her. Or, perhaps, this was someone who needed insurance.
Gently, the elder witch set down her mug of tea. "My name is--"
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, May 26th, 2021

Author Comments

Names intrigue me. A handful of sounds or markings represents a whole person, and names carrying power is an old, familiar idea (used in some folklore, for example). I also wanted to play with the concept of trust and taking a risk to offer kindness. All of that came together in this story.

Ironically, I have a bad habit of forgetting names. Maybe I should start keeping a book for them too.

- Sarah G Matthews
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