An Equivalent Mass

Content warning: this story contains depictions of abused animals. (And comeuppance. If depictions of abused animals upset you — that’s ok! They should! — feel free to not-read knowing the bastard gets what’s coming to him.) 

The three animals stepped into the clearing in the woods: a siamese cat with a bit of airs about her, a young pit bull who was a bit too excited to be lost, and an old Labrador retriever. Clearly someone’s beloved pets, all three looked bedraggled and, though not badly injured, certainly unhappy. 

The cat stopped suddenly and sat down, looking at the two dogs as if they had straight up lost their minds. The pit bull balked as well. The log cabin that stood in front of them didn’t look safe. The southern end’s roof had collapsed and a tree grown up in the space. The northern end was leaning dangerously to the left. The porch roof looked scorched by fire. 

The Labrador paused with the others for a moment. The animals exchanged looks. The lab, not convinced by the others’ concerns, stepped forward to lead the way. 

As they approached the house, a brick fell off the chimney and smashed on the ground. The cat jumped up on top of the pit bull and refused to climb back down even after the pittie shook himself.

The animals climbed the rickety stairs onto the porch. They stared at the door.

A middle-aged woman stood on the other side of a crooked brown storm door. “Lost in the woods, huh? Family lives three hundred away, over the mountains? And you want to get home?” 

She stared at them for a moment, then sighed. “Come on in.” She swung the screen door open. 

The lab pawed at the air. 

“No, I’m not a goddess, I’m a witch. I don’t care what the Saint Bernard told you… you’ll understand the difference soon enough.”

Inside, the cabin was whole, undamaged, and much larger than it looked on the outside. The large room’s southern door led to a sunny kitchen with a solid roof and no errant trees. The northern wall over the basement stairwell was covered in framed pictures of animals, mostly pets, but the occasional bear, raccoon, and deer as well. The back room appeared to be a bedroom.

The cabin wasn’t crowded, but it wasn’t empty either. A dozen dogs and cats lounged in pet beds, climbed the furniture,  or played with toys strewn about everywhere.

Only the large steel cage, big enough for an elephant, in the northeast corner, hinted at anything other than a dog’s paradise. 

The old woman looked down at the trio and sighed again. “Let’s take a look at you.” 

The pit bull woofed. 

“You don’t do examinations? Would you rather go back outside?” 

The pit bull looked away, and woofed again. 

“That’s what I thought.” The witch’s hands began to glow with a magical light. She picked up the cat and inspected her. “Sassy, eh? Fitting name. You’re in good shape for your age, though I’m guessing you’d prefer wet food over dry considering those teeth.”

Next, she examined the pit bull. “Chance, huh? Maybe you’re the one they should’ve named Sassy,” she commented after a moment. “Not even a year old, I’m guessing. How did you manage to lose two front claws already if you’ve only been lost for two days? Escaping a bear? Well yes, I suppose that would do it… Nothing wrong with you that a little antibiotic cream won’t clear up.” She rubbed the salve on Chance’s injured paws and set him back down on the floor. “Before you try licking it off let me warn you that it’s made with hot peppers.”

The witch motioned to the black lab. “You’ve got some years on you, sir. Twelve, huh? Your people must love you very much. Yes, I see why they named you Shadow. No, I think the grey muzzle looks stately.”

Chance went tearing by the witch and the lab, tongue hanging out.

“There’s a bowl of milk in the kitchen,” the witch called after him. She turned her attention back to Shadow. “You can warn the young ones but they don’t listen anyway,” she said. “I suppose you already know that if you’ve had a run-in with a bear… yes, of course that’s why you sought me out.” She stood up. “You’re in good shape for your age, but I’ll bet that hip arthritis is giving you trouble. Her hand glowed brighter for a moment. Shadow visibly relaxed. “Yeah, I’ll bet that’s a lot better.”

Thee witch he called her new guests back over. “There’s another guest coming in momentarily, so I’m going to make this quick. I’m not a goddess, I’m a witch. The treatment you just received, a bed, and a meal for the first night is free. But if you stay longer than that, there’s a price.”

The animals conferred. Sassy meowed.

“The cost for staying a few days until I take you home? Some minor injuries would work best, I suppose. No one would believe you travelled through the mountains for 300 miles without a single injury, and I don’t need you drawing anyone’s attention to my operation. You won’t have to limp very far, though. There’s a suitable place to drop you near your home.” 

She paused. “The cost for leaving is doing it on your own… once you leave, you won’t be able to come back. I won’t pick you up a second time if you’re not willing to pay the price for my hospitality.”

Shadow snorted. 

“You’re right, the Saint Bernard was quite mistaken when he called me a goddess.” The witch stood with her arms crossed and waited. 

The three animals decided to stay, though clearly there was some disagreement.

The animals took the time to introduce themselves to the others, then started to settle into the beds around the cabin.

The witch sat at her chair by the fire and read the news on her phone. “The Antarctic situation is getting worse,” she told a tabby who was batting at a stray wisp of her hair. “Krill populations are way down. At this rate I’m going to need to consider how to rescue a blue whale.” 

The witch’s phone chirped. She tapped the screen. The cabin shook, as if a small earthquake had rolled through. The witch glanced out the window. Instead of a learning in a forest, they were in a clearing in a desert. “Here again? That’s the third time this month. How many dogs does that guy have?”

A moment later, she half-carried, half-dragged a bulldog off the front porch. He had clearly gotten the worst of someone’s temper. The dog was bleeding in multiple places, and bruised in many other. “You’re going to need more than salve,” the witch muttered, pouring potions from the kitchen shelves into a dog bowl. 

The dog was so hurt that she had to guide his face to the dish so that he could find it. “Drink. It’ll take away the pain and help you sleep.” The dog took a long drink and sighed. “Yeah, it’s the good stuff.” She wrapped his wounds in bandages and salve. 

The potion began working even before all of the dog’s wounds were wrapped, and he was able to get on his feet. “You, Chance, Shadow, come give Charlie here a hand.” 

The dogs jumped to their feet and flanked Charlie so that if he lost his balance, he’d tip into them instead of falling over. Shadow guided Charlie to the softest bed on the floor, and with a quiet woof displaced the three cats that had taken it as their napping spot. Charlie sniffed Shadow’s ear in thanks. He curled up on the soft bed. 

Chance returned to the witch’s side and sat down, his ears back, his tail wagging timidly. “Oh, no, honey, he’ll be okay. The potions just take a little time when you’re in bad shape. He’s still got life and love in him.” She scratched Chance behind his ears.

The next morning started with the pickup of an extremely confused beagle in the suburbs of a large city. “Roscoe, your people need to get that gate repaired,” the witch said. Roscoe wagged. “What’ll it be this time? Ear mites? Ticks?” she asked. 

Roscoe dropped an extremely well-chewed tennis ball on the floor and wagged. 

“No, I can’t take your favorite toy as payment, Roscoe. If I did that we’d have toys from the basement to the attic and no room for dogs. How about fleas? They’ll only itch a little, and once you share them with your owners maybe they’ll learn their lesson and get that gate fixed. Oh I know! Fox scat!”

The witch tapped some commands on her phone. The cabin’s rumble was short. Based on the view from Sassy’s window seat, they’d moved only a few blocks. Roscoe bounded out the front door and down the sidewalk of what appeared to be an abandoned suburban home. As soon as he bounced out of the gate he stopped. He rolled in a very large pile of very smelly fox poop that just happened to be on the sidewalk. 

When he was done rolling, Roscoe turned to the left, and the witch yelled out the door, “No, you idiot, you live across the street!” 

The beagle turned and panted at the witch. He crossed the street and scratched at the front door. The woman who opened the front door gagged as Roscoe trotted past her int the house.

Sassy climbed down from the window and meowed at the witch. 

The witch poured herself a mug of tea before she replied. “Oh, I assure you, rolling in fox scat is certainly a price. Or rather, a bath is a price. Roscoe’s already been marched up to the bathtub, where both he and his people will spend the next hour trying to get sticky fox scat out of his fur. It’s not going to be pleasant for anyone.”

Sassy licked her paws and stared at the witch.

“Why don’t I just keep him? A scatter-brained beagle with only a half an idea what ‘house trained’ means? No, he has people of his own. People who need him to sooth their minds and be their conscience. I’m not like them.” 

Shadow had the look of the dog who disagreed. 

Charlie woke with a start, then ran laps around the cabin like a puppy who had just discovered the joy of running. He stopped in front of the witch, stood firmly on all fours, and barked. 

“Yes, I see that. All healed up, huh?” The witch smiled. “Ready to go?”

The dog hop-barked. 

“Wherever you want. However you want.” She paused when the big dog growled. “You don’t have to go back, Charlie. He almost killed you. You don’t have to have anyone as your person any more.”

Many of the animals in the cabin raised their heads. Some, like Shadow, didn’t look like they could imagine leaving their person voluntarily. Others, like the nervous Chihuahua with the bruised ribs in the kitchen, looked extremely excited at the concept. 

The idea appealed to Charlie as well. 

“Then we certainly are not going to take you back to the desert… he said he’d hunt you down anywhere? No, that’s not going to happen either. We’re going to make sure it doesn’t.”

The witch paused a moment, listening. “Well, what if you weren’t a dog anymore? Then he wouldn’t recognize you. And you could live anywhere. If you could go anywhere and be anyone in the whole world, Charlie, what would you pick?”

The dog snuffled and paced for a bit, chased a few cats for their opinions, moved among the packs of dogs for theirs, then returned to the witch. He woofed. 

“A bulldog? Charlie you’re already a bulldog.” 

Charlie woofed again. 

“Oh! A bull! Like a bull-bull. A large male cow. Horns and the whole bit.” 

Charlie wagged his tail. 

“Yes I can do that. I’m a witch. But, Charlie, if I transmute you to a bull you’ll have to be a baby. I can only transform from one shape to another when it’s an equal amount of mass. You would be, well, you’d be a highly underweight premature baby bull. I couldn’t guarantee your safety.” 

Charlie’s eyes dropped.

“Well, what about a gazelle?” the witch asked. “You’re about the right size for a buck. They get to run around, fight, all the things you’re asking for.” She pulled up a picture on her phone of two gazelle sparring. “Yes, they’re a lot like horns. You could definitely gore a human if they got too close to your herd.” 

With that, it was decided. The witch said an incantation over the dog, then tapped him on the head. She used her phone to move the cabin to the grasslands of Africa. A herd of gazelle stared at the cabin from a safe distance away. 

The witch opened the front door, and Charlie burst out into his new form, then bounced through the trees to the herd. 

“That herd lost their buck a few days ago to an illness,” the witch said to two of the nearby dogs. “He’ll be fine.”

Sassy meowed from her seat at the window.

“Oh, no, there’s no price for him. His price will be paid by his person, rest assured.” 

Shadow whined. 

“What will I do to his person? Kill him, obviously.” The witch replied. 

Chance whined. 

“No, it’s not the same as putting him down. No, it isn’t. Look, you haven’t seen what I’ve seen! Some people, they’re broken. Your loyalty is displaced. They aren’t going to stop hurting — they have to go.” 

Shadow huffed, then half-barked. 

“I’m not arguing about this with you. I’ve got things to do.” The witch stormed down to the basement. The animals in the house gathered in nervous groups. 

The next day was much like the first. The cabin traveled from place to place, all over the globe. They picked up lost animals and helped them find their way home. They picked up runaways and helped them heal and find new homes. The witch showed every animal love, even the grumpy polar bear who slept in the big cage overnight. (“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” the witch said, “it’s just that you’re a bear and everyone else here is snack food in comparison.”)

Even the witch noticed that she only spoke about people with a hint of contempt. A terrier who lost her people while chasing a squirrel was inconsolable. The witch was about to say  something sarcastic, when Shadow caught her eye, and she sighed. “I’m sure they’re just as unhappy about it as you are,” she said instead. “We’ll get you home as soon as we can.” 

That night, the witch sat in front of the fire and knit. She tapped the phone and announced that they were “off duty”. At Chance’s curious look she explained. “I’m not the only witch on the lookout for those who need help,” she said. “The Council of Witches set the schedule, so that we can still do things like sleep, and eat, and lay curses on newborn princesses and their christenings.” She laughed. 

Shadow rested his head on the witch’s knee. 

“You’re a good dog,” the witch said, petting him. “Your people must be very special to have earned a dog as good as you are… they’re not your first people? Oh, you’re all rescues? I wouldn’t have guessed for as much as you love them.”

The dog sighed a big sigh. 

“I… I didn’t have a very good relationship with my people,” the witch said. “And in this business, you don’t see many of the good ones. You mostly see, well, people like the man who beat up Charlie.” 

Shadow licked the witch’s hand.

“Go to watch the reunions? No. no, I wouldn’t want to pry. And more importantly, I wouldn’t want someone to think I was after their pet. People can be very protective of their animals.”

Shadow laid down and rested her head on the witch’s feet. In a few moments, he was snoring. 

“A dog like you, well, a person can see why,” the witch whispered quietly to herself. 

When the witch’s phone chirped the next morning, she cursed. “Back to the desert,” she muttered. 

This time, when the witch carried the young Irish setter into the cabin, the dog had lost consciousness from her injuries. The witch was furious, but didn’t let her anger distract her from the medical tasks she faced. The woman mixed potions and salves with magical spells and healing words. 

While the witch worked, Chance laid down against the setter’s back to lend his warmth. He licked the pup’s ear. 

Sassy kept watch at the window, and rallied the other cats to do the same. A lost animal or a runaway was one thing — they rarely had pursuers. The cats knew that there was a predator on the loose outside, and spotting it before it spotted the cabin was a top priority. 

Shadow sat by the witch’s side, wordlessly giving her a companion and a witness. When she tired, he licked the sweat from her cheek. When she cried, he leaned against her for comfort. 

After too long a time working on what seemed a hopeless mission, the witch sat back against the wall. “That’s all I can give her. Th healing potions will work, or they won’t. If she lives to morning, it’ll be because she wants to live more than he wanted to kill her.”

  They moved the setter, whose tags said “Rose” to the same bed that Charlie slept on. The dog roused herself just enough to lick the witch’s hand. “Hush now, sleep, Rose. You need your energy.”

The cabin’s occupants slept like those who were waiting for any groan, any creak, any whistle, to mean that the enemy had come upon them. Whether that enemy was Death or the predator that invited him was of no matter. 

The witch woke with a wish that she still drank coffee. “My head is pounding today, friends,” she said to the cats who prowled the window sills and the kitchen counter. The witch brewed some tea, and was about to sit down to a light breakfast when Sassy and two other cats yowled an angry alarm. 

The witch looked at her phone, tapped a few buttons, and snapped her fingers, instantly changing out of her pajamas into more presentable clothes. Her phone had transformed into a mahogany staff of considerable length. “Don’t look so shocked,” she laughed at Sassy look of amazement. “Did you really think I didn’t have a wand?”

A man beat against the front door.

“We’re not taking visitors today,” the witch called politely. 

“Open this door and give me my dog!” the man yelled. 

“And we’re doing this,” the witch sighed. 

Shadow and Chance, along with three other medium-sized dogs, stood at the door, hackles up. The witch was momentarily taken aback by their loyalty. “If I thought it would put an end to things, pups, I would absolutely let you chase him down.” She ordered the dogs back from the door, then opened it. 

“Can I help you?” the witch said sweetly. 

The man was twice the size of the witch, tall and thick with muscles. He carried a length of chain stained with blood and a leash and collar studded with prongs. “You’re the bitch stealing my dogs,” he spat.

“I haven’t stolen an animal my whole life,” the witch replied. Hands on her hips and chin up, she looked like a defiant child trying to stare down a furious adult. Chance and Shadow exchanged glances, then jogged forward, flanking the witch on both sides. 

Rose weakly clambered off of her bed and walked to the front door. She recognized Chance and Shadow from the night before, and pulled up at Shadow’s side. 

“Rosie baby! There you are!” the man said in a high falsetto that reeked of you-are-in-so-much-trouble. 

Rose looked up at the witch, then out at the man. 

“You can go if you want to,” the witch said. 

Rose turned toward the cabin beds. 

“Don’t you turn your back on—“ the man yelled. As he swung his arm down to grab Rose by the back of the neck, his stroke was blocked by the witch’s staff. She flipped the staff this way and that, tapping the man in the head and both shoulders, before using the staff to push him back to the door. 

The man lunged forward at the witch. 

Chance, Shadow, and Rose all lunged forward at the man. He stepped back again. 

“Rose, do you want to stay?” 

The tall, skinny Irish setter paused in her growling long enough for a quick tail wag, then returned to her growl. 

“The lady would like you to leave,” the witch said, gesturing to Rose, “And I would like you to leave as well.”

The dogs stepped forward snarling again, but this time the man didn’t step back. 

“Don’t think you can threaten me with your dogs,” the man growled.

The witch laughed. 

“Threaten you with my dogs? Sir, I do not threaten.” She waved a finger, and the chain jumped out of the man’s hands. It danced around him like a snake, then wrapped itself around him tightly, growing and stretching until he could move neither his arms nor his legs. 

The cats gave the witch a look of approval. They knew what “playing with the prey” looked like.  

“I do not need to threaten.” 

The chain pulled the man into the large cage in the dark corner of the cabin. A plush sofa popped into existence. The chain shortened until the man had no choice but to sit. 

Chance woofed.

“It’s forbidden. The Council that controls the cabins would strip me of my powers and send me back out on the streets. Cuts, bruises, even cancer, no problem. Depression? Fair game. Fixing this? This would be changing his personality and that’s off limits.” 

Shadow sneezed. 

“It would be best for everyone,” the witch replied. 

Shadow sneezed again. 

“You don’t know what it’s like with one of these people. You don’t understand!” the witch argued. 

Shadow stood up on his hind legs, waving his paws at the witch. For the first time, she saw the scars that the old dog’s first people had caused.

The witch paused, listening. Tears filled her eyes. “Well sometimes animals are monsters too, and we have to put them down.”

Shadow sat down and sneezed. 

Rose nuzzled the witch’s hand. The witch’s shoulders fell. “You do too? After all the things he did to you?” She stroked the setter’s healed face. “Okay then. I’ll do my best.”  She pulled herself back together before she turned to face the man.

“The dogs have asked me to show you some mercy, and treat you like an injured animal instead of a murderer.” 

Sassy meowed.

“The cats think I should kill you, to absolutely no one’s surprise,” the witch added. “Now, let’s take a look at you.” The witch walked into the cage, and pulled the door shut.

The man’s chains disappeared. He jumped to his feet and charged the witch, but try as he might he couldn’t reach her. He ran in place as if he was on a treadmill. When he reached out to grab her his hands passed right through her. The witch waited, silently, until the man was too exhausted to continue, and sat back down. 

The witch put her hands on either side of the man’s head. Her fingers entwined in his grimy hair when he tried to yank away from her touch, but her magic was stronger than his fear. Her hands glowed around the man’s head. The strain of the battle showed on both their faces. 

“Oh.” The witch let go. 

The man collapsed against the back of the sofa. 

“Oh, you’re a broken being, you are,” the witch said. “I’ve seen some broken animals in my time. You were broken at birth and then they beat you… and you broke further… oh, this isn’t good.”

A stool popped into existence, and the witch sat down on it. She thought in silence for a few moments. All of the animals gathered around the cage, watching silently. 

“Do you want to live?” she asked the man. 

He spat an expletive at her. 

“No, seriously. I’m not threatening you, I’m asking you. When a bear or a wolverine seeks me out with injuries like yours, they do so because they don’t want to live in pain and anger and fear anymore. You — we — are more like the wolverine than the dog. If you are done with all this pain and anger, I can end it for you.”

“Give me my dog and let me go.” 

“I put down one of your dogs recently. No, don’t try to deny it, I can see her in your memories. You didn’t love her. You used her. She was just something you could destroy, and you wanted to destroy. She loved you.”

The man on the sofa rose to his feet, and tried again to attack the witch. He hurled such profanities that many of the animals cowered. Still, the witch sat on her stool. 

“I will make you the same offer I made to the dogs you destroyed,” she said when he had once again exhausted himself and sat down.

The man’s face was furious. All he wanted was revenge. He was barely listening. 

“If you wish it, I will end your suffering. If you prefer to live, I will change your form to one that will cause no more harm.”

“If I turned you into a bear, or a boar, or heck, even a collection of stoats, you would be the nastiest creature in the forest. The other animals would continue to suffer. If I leave you as a human, you will have learned nothing and your reign of terror would continue. But I must turn you into something of equal mass… and you’re not exactly the size of a mouse.”

The man snarled and yelled obscenities. 

The witch thought. 

Chance pawed at her staff. 

“You want to see my phone? You’re a dog.” The witch shook her head and transmuted the staff back into a phone. The man paused in his yelling. 

Chance waved a paw at the phone. 

“The news I was talking about the other day?” She flipped through the history. The article on endangered krill in the Antarctic lit the room.

“An equal mass of krill… hmm…” 

Chance panted. 

The witch looked around the room. “Changing him into an equal mass of krill would spare his life. He would continue to live, as a very angry mass of microorganisms in the Antarctic ocean. Are there any objections this time?”

Shadow snorted. Rose followed suit.

The witch returned her attention to the man. “One more time: would you rather live or die?”

He began to curse at her again. 

“Enough! Live, or die?”

“Live!” he snapped. 

She nodded. “No use waiting any longer, then.”

The witch fetched a large washbasin from the basement and dusted out the cobwebs. She set the basin in front of the cage. 

“You’re a freak. You’re crazy. You can’t turn people into krill! That’s not even possible! Let me out of here!”

The witch called to the animals. “Back up!” 

They scattered in all directions, hiding under furniture or behind the kitchen door. Shadow and Rose both stayed closer than the others. Their eyes never left the man. Their hackles never dropped. 

The witch pulled the cage door open and the man charged her. As his foot crossed over the threshold of the cage, it transformed into krill, causing him to lose his balance and tumble forward. His whole body transmuted to krill as it fell forward. The witch waved her hands again, and the entire mass of krill poured itself into the washtub. 

The witch tapped her phone screen, which turned back into a staff. She held the staff in both hands, high over her head. The cabin rumbled a long, long time. 

Just as everyone got their wits about them, the cabin lurched and leaned to the right. “Had to land us on an ice sheet. I just gave a herd of sea lions the scare of their lives.” The witch cackled. 

The witch levitated the entire wash basin of krill through the front door, then dropped it unceremoniously into the ocean. It sank. “I did’t like that washtub much anyway,” she gasped as the effort of what she’d done washed over her. 

Sassy pushed the front door closed. 

The witch raised the staff over her head one more time. A long rumble later, the cabin was nestled back in the clearing in the woods where Shadow, Chance, and Sassy had found it. 

The witch collapsed into her chair and drank her entire mug of tea. “Not as effective, but tastier,” she said. Tapping the screen one more time, she announced. “You know, I don’t care that Roscoe got out again, one of the others can handle it. We’re taking the rest of the day off.” 

That night, Rose took Shadow’s place at the witch’s feet. 

The next morning, the witch called Shadow, Chance, and Sassy forward. “Today’s the day,” she said. She tapped Shadow’s address tags with her phone, and the cabin shifted locations yet again. “You’re less than a quarter of a mile from home and, yes, your people are outside right now wishing they knew where you are.”

“Shadow…” The witch bent down next to the old retriever. “A witch could use a conscience. There’s a place for you here — all of you — if you want to stay.”

The cat wound around her ankles and the two dogs thunked their tails on the floor.

“Yes, yes of course your children need you,” The witch sighed. 

Shadow woofed.

Rose pawed at the witch’s arm. 

“You… you want to stay with me? Are you sure you don’t want to go somewhere else? Do something amazing?”

Rose woofed, and sat at the witch’s side. She grinned. 

The witch lined the three animals up again and tapped them each on the head while chanting under her breath. 

“You’re going to forget everything when you leave the clearing and enter the field ahead of us,” the witch explained. “Sassy, you’ll have a torn ear from a fight with a bobcat that you boldly escaped. Chance, I’m afraid it’s a nose full of porcupine quills for you. Shadow, well, nobody’s going to believe that hip healed during the journey, so the arthritis is coming back, buddy. But you’ll be home with your people before the night is over.” 

She opened the door to the cabin and the three animals bounded across the clearing. Sassy and Chance dove into the trees. Shadow stopped and turned, looking at the witch and the setter and wagging his tail once last time. “Get going,” the witch called. “I have another pick-up to get to!” 

He bounded into the trees and disappeared from her sight.

Photo by Ken Reid on Unsplash