Shay Sheridan

Howl's Moving Castle: Written for Purim Gifts 2009
In which Sophie takes a walk and many things are explained

"Where does that door lead?" Sophie grunted, staring at the dial beside the castle door.

"I wouldn't ask that, Sophie," Calcipher crackled. "Trust me – Howl doesn't want us to know."

That, of course, only made Sophie more curious. "I think I'll have a look," said she, turning the dial. "I want to know where Howl's gone."

"Don't do it!" Michael yelped in alarm. "Howl will be angr–"

Which was the last thing Sophie heard as the door closed behind her.

She found herself on a pleasant street of brick houses and well-kept lawns. A child rode by on a bicycle and gave her a funny look–

–My clothes, no doubt, Sophie reckoned, seeing as the boy's clothes looked a bit odd to her, too. And then a vehicle rode by as well and she couldn't stop her jaw from dropping at the sleek lines and the speed of it. "Well, now," Sophie remarked. "Howl certainly visits some modern places!"

She peered around her, just managing to catch a glimpse of Howl's back retreating into a square brick house with a lovely garden flanking the walk. So she gathered her skirts and crossed the pavement, careful to avoid any other speeding vehicles. She panted up the narrow stone steps to the front door, took a deep breath, and rapped.

"What? More company? We should be having a party, maybe? No, don't get up, Harold darling. I'll get it." The voice behind the door was female, with a lilting accent Sophie couldn't place. As the door swung open, the body attached to the voice proved to be middle-aged, chubby, and clad in black. "Hello?" said the woman. "May I help you?"

"Oh," said Sophie, suddenly at a loss. She was perfectly aware of the image she herself projected – a frumpy old lady in long, unattractive skirts and sensible shoes. What could she say? I followed Howl through a magic portal and wound up here? That hardly would do. "I, um, I'm a friend of Howl's," she offered lamely.

The woman wrinkled her forehead and clutched her glasses, which swung from a chain around her neck. "I'm afraid you have the wrong house, bubbe. There's no – whatsis? – Howell? here."

"But I just saw–"

"She means me, mama," Howl's voice said, and suddenly he was standing behind the woman, glaring at Sophie with great annoyance. "This is Sophie, my cleaning lady, though why she's here I have no idea."

The woman put on her glasses and with shrewd eyes looked Sophie up and down. "She looks just like your Tante Rose, doesn't she?"

"Maybe a little."

"But she called you 'Howl,' Harold. Doesn't she know your name?"

"You know how it is with the elderly," Howl said cuttingly. "She's a little hard of hearing." He sniffed in Sophie's direction. "Frankly, she's a little mental, too."

"Vay iz mir!" The woman clutched her bosom in alarm. "Should you be hiring crazy people, Harold? She could stab you in your sleep!"

Sophie had grown quite tired of being referred to in the third person, particularly in such a manner. "Your son exaggerates," she murmured, forcing herself not to throttle the smug expression off Howl's face. "He has quite a sense of humor."

"Oh," sighed Howl's mother, clearly relieved. "That's so true! My Harold is such a kidder." She pinched Howl's cheek lovingly.

"Ow! Quit it, ma, willya?"

"My little mensch. Couldn't you just eat him up, Sophie?"

"Oh yes," said Sophie evenly. "With a spoon." And a knife.

"Well, come in, come in," said the woman, suddenly cheerful. "Harold's no good at introductions, so let me tell you, I'm his mother, Belle Leibowitz. But you can call me Belle, since you're practically part of the family. You look hungry – you want a little kugel?"

"Um," said Sophie, clueless. "Sure?"

"Just make yourself comfortable in the living room, dear. I'll be right back. And be nice, Harold – no more jokes!" With that, Belle disappeared through a doorway.

The parlor – or "living room" as it was called – was cluttered but clean, full of large furniture, the upholstered pieces under a thick transparent covering that rustled when Sophie touched it. Nearly every surface was crowded with pictures of a child photographed at many ages. Sophie recognized Howl immediately; apparently as a young child his blond curls had been natural. Over the mantle was a painting of Howl as an adolescent. There was a large glass-fronted cabinet with a variety of items within, from gold-rimmed china to a pair of bronzed baby shoes, to a snip of curly blond hair tied at the end with a blue bow. Sophie leaned closer to read the little silver plaque beneath it: "Harold's first haircut." She rolled her eyes. She picked up a photograph of a much younger Belle on the arm of well-turned out, handsome man, and sat down on the settee. The clear fabric crinkled and felt very odd indeed under her, rather like dry leather. "Who's this?"

"My father," Howl said dismissively, flopping into an armchair.

"He's a nice dresser."

"He was in the garment trade," explained Howl. "Wholesale, specializing in haute-couture knockoffs.'"

"I'm sure that's lovely, whatever it is. So," said Sophie, "Your name is 'Harold Leibowitz?'"

"I suppose you have something rude to say about it," sneered Howl.

"Not at all. It's a perfectly fine name...so why did you change it?"

Howl shrugged. "You can't go around being a wizard with a name like that. It's not frightening enough. People won't take you seriously."

Sophie refrained from pointing out quite a few people didn't take Howl seriously under any circumstances. "How did you come from this place…to being a wizard?"

"Actually, it started when I was studying the kabbalah. I discovered I was able to–" Howl stopped suddenly. "Never mind that. What are you doing here?"

She was spared having to answer by Belle, who returned bearing a tray of tea, cookies and some sort of noodle pudding. "Oh," said Howl's mother, noticing the picture in Sophie's hands. "My no-goodnik husband Irving, he should rest in peace. Made a good living, but had no dreams. So of course I was thrilled when Harold decided to become a pharmacist."

Sophie snorted her tea through her nose, and coughed loudly into her handkerchief.

"Oh dear," said Belle, offering her a napkin. "Are you all right, Sophie?"

"Perfectly well," Sophie coughed and raised one eyebrow in Howl's direction. "A pharmacist. You must tell me some time, Harold, how you made the decision to become a pharmacist."

"He was so very smart in school. Really, he's just the perfect son, wouldn't you agree, Sophie?" Belle sat on the arm of Howl's chair, and pulled him face-first into a smothering hug against her sizable bosom. "I only wish he'd come to visit his poor, lonely mother a little more often. And he needs to find a nice girl, right, Sophie?"

"Oh yes," Sophie said. "Harold really does need to meet some girls. He's so shy with them."

"Not that there's a girl good enough for my boy, of course."

"Oh, no," replied Sophie. "Certainly not."

"Mom," said Howl, standing quite suddenly, "I'm afraid I have to go."

"What, so soon? But you just got here. I'm making a brisket for you – your favorite! Sophie, dear, you're welcome to stay, of course."

"She has to go, and so do I." He put a hand on Sophie's shoulder and started to steer her firmly toward the door.

"Please, won't you stay just a little longer, Harold?" Belle put a hand to her chest and took several shallow breaths. "I don't feel so well. I may be having palpitations."

"You'll be fine, mom." He leaned in to peck his mother's plump cheek. "Call Dr. Fishbane if you feel sick, okay?" Howl's hand wrapped around Sophie's arm. "Let's go, Sophie."

"Oh, Harold," Sophie said sweetly. "You don't want to make your mother unhappy, do you? Maybe you should stay."

"Listen to your lovely cleaning woman, Harold. She's very smart and very sensitive."

"Sorry," Howl said between gritted teeth, "but I forgot about a very important…prescription. Right. A prescription I have to fill. For a very important customer. Today. This afternoon. Right now. Come on, Sophie."

And with that Howl dragged her unceremoniously out the door, pausing only to be smothered once again in his mother's ample bosom, and to promise her, absolutely, to drive carefully and call once he got home.

"Well," Sophie said as Howl turned a doorknob and pulled her back inside the castle entrance. "This explains a lot."

"What? What do you mean by that?"

"I mean," said Sophie, "now I know why you think so highly of yourself. And why you have a perfect horror of women."

"I do not! I'm very fond of women!"

"Certainly you are…except for those who actually have expectations of you, Harold."

"Stop calling me by that name," Howl hissed, dragging her away from where Michael and Calcifer were pretending not to listen. "You, Sophie Hatter, are a very terrible person. Be silent, or I'll work a spell on you and turn you into an even worse monster than you are!"

"Oh dear." Sophie clutched her chest and sank artfully against the credenza. "Be careful, Harold. I'm quite afraid I may be having palpitations."

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