Bougie de Voyage
by P.A. O’Neil
Lotta Valentine had been in Ireland for only a few years. It was her most recent stop as she worked her way evermore west from the land of her birth on the border of France and Italy. In the first few years, she’d discovered it was never wise to stay in one place for long. It became too painful to watch her friends marry, and then forget who she was. She learned to neither put down roots nor attach herself to any one community.
Originally, the words the Gypsy had yelled at her, as the old woman was being removed from her father’s house by the groom and footman, were scoffed at and ignored. How was Lotta to know the young man whose path she crossed each day when she rode her horse was the old woman’s son, and that he had fallen in love with her? The day he’d come to her father’s house with three fine horses to ask for Lotta’s hand in exchange had been humiliating. She was home, entertaining, and even though she denied ever having feelings for him, it was embarrassing when her father’s men set loose his horses and threw him off the grounds. The next day, his mother had come to tell her he had thrown himself into the river. His heart broken, his honor shamed.
The old woman had claimed to be a witch, and cursed Lotta to a life of immortality, spending her forever pairing lovers, and then being forgotten by those she’d helped. Thus denying true love for herself. The Valentine household had laughed at her words but as the years passed and everyone else grew old and gray, Lotta remained as young in appearance as the day she was cursed. The worst pain came when she introduced her widowed father to the aunt of a childhood friend. It was soon after the man she loved so dearly had exchanged vows with his new wife, that the pain of the curse was truly felt. Neither of them recognized her anymore, and demanded that she be removed from their sight.
That day was almost 150-years ago, and she had steadily been moving west ever since. Lotta would arrive at a community, and set herself up as a seamstress, a cook, or a lady’s maid—whatever suited the need, and get to know the people of the community until she found an unmarried couple who needed to be paired towards matrimony. With the successful exchange of marriage vows, she would move on to another community to begin again. After the first twenty years or so, the partings became more and more painful.
Her latest position found her working as a cook for a prestigious household where she placed herself to see to the “matching” of one of the maids to the head groundskeeper.
One day, Lotta heard a dog frantically barking at one of the fruit trees just outside the kitchen. Upon investigation, she discovered it had treed an unusual looking cat. She shooed the dog away, and vainly tried to coax the cat down but to no avail. Knowing she couldn’t spend the afternoon waiting on the cat, she returned to her duties in the kitchen but not before setting out a bowl of the finest cream on the back stoop.
The next day, she found that same cat and an empty bowl waiting for her to fill with milk fresh from the morning’s milking. From that day, she and the cat were friends. She even convinced the head housekeeper of the necessity of having a cat around the kitchen area to keep away the mice.
Lotta adored that cat but at the same time, she knew she would have to leave it behind when she moved on. Early one morning, the day after Miss Maid became Mrs. Groundskeeper, Lotta slipped away with her meager belongings before her presence as a cook could even be forgotten. Heading west to Galway Bay, she stopped for a rest on a low rock wall that bordered the rough dirt road, and heard the familiar mewing of her friend, the cat. She hadn’t noticed it following her in the dark of night and felt sorry, sure that the poor animal had to be as tired as she was from all that walking.
Not having any milk, she broke a piece of cheese into tiny pieces and poured some water into the cap of her canteen to give to the cat. “Oh, my lovely one,” Lotta cooed, stroking its thick coat, “there be no use in following me for I don’t even know where I am going. You’re better off stopping at the next farmhouse to find your new home.”
“But I want to travel with you.”
Lotta jumped off the wall, her eyes wide, her mouth agape, but no sound could she make. She watched dumbfounded; the cat’s fur glowed, and its limbs stretched out to exorbitant lengths for a feline. When the radiance ceased, where there had been a housecat sat a woman with wild blonde hair and brilliant green eyes. She wore a thin cloak of a gossamer fabric, and nothing else.
The wild woman groaned, stretching her arms, twisting her back, and ending with a sigh of satisfaction. “Oh, that feels better. Now, Miss Lotta Valentine, where exactly is it we are goin’?”
Lotta clutched one hand to her breast, the other reached out to touch the hand of the newcomer. “What are you, creature… a witch’s familiar?”
“Now, Lotta, d’you think any witch would have a familiar as classy lookin’ as me?”
Lotta pulled her hand away as if burned. “What do you want with me?”
“I’m here to help you with your, uh, task. The Queen of the Fae has been watchin’ as you go about matchin’ couples for matrimony. She’s taken pity on you and sent me to accompany you as an assistant, to light the way of sorts.”
Lotta tipped her head, trying to size up this strange woman. “What do I need an assistant for? I’ve been doin’ just fine for the last hundred years or so. Why now?”
“Times are changin’, Lotta, and yes you have been successful but the life you lead is a lonely one. Bein’ immortal, I’m here to keep you company and assist in areas where a wee bit of magic might be needed. Now, what are your plans, and where are we going?”
Lotta thought about the loneliness she always felt when she moved on after a marriage. “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have company for a while.” She stood tall and collected her things in a take-charge manner. “I’m on my way to Galway Bay to buy passage to the Colonies. I don’t think I have enough for two though, and I doubt they’d let me bring a cat.”
“Tsk, tsk, is that what you’re worried about? Look in your purse and see you now have more than enough coin for the both of us.”
Lotta felt the weight of the pouch hanging off her belt substantially increase as she weighed it with her hand. “Well, fine then but you can’t travel looking like that! Don’t you have any clothes?”
“Of course, I do.” With a wave of her hand, the cloak was gone, replaced by a fashionable travel costume, her hair brushed back into a tight bun under a tam-o’-shanter of knitted wool. “There, I think the current fashion suits me well, don’t you?”
“Remarkably well.” Lotta walked around this new woman, her eyes moving to catch every detail of her appearance from head to toe. “If you’ve been sent to accompany me, why did you wait until now to show yourself in this form?”
The woman gently put her arm around Lotta’s shoulders to walk her down the cart path towards the west. “I first needed to know I could trust you, and you needed to like me. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
Lotta gave a sideways glance at the hand on her shoulder as she was being led away. “Yeah … but that was when you were a cat. How do I know we’re going to get along now?” Brows knitted and lips pursed, she turned to face her, still apprehensive about this new woman.
“Trust me, Lotta dear, we’re goin’ to get along just fine.”
Lotta stopped up short, “If we’re companions, I can’t keep calling you ‘cat’. What exactly is your name?”
“Bougie. Bougie de Voyage.”
“Wait, isn’t that French for travel candle?”
Bougie threw back her head and laughed, “Precisely, Lotta dear. Precisely.”
P.A. O’Neil has been writing professionally for four years. In that time, her stories have been featured in multiple anthologies (many of them international best-sellers), as well as on-line journals and magazines from several continents. She released her first collection, Witness Testimony and Other Tales, in April 2020 in both ebook and paperback. The book was met with great success.