In a forgotten corner of the city, at the end of a nondescript back alley, was a small health food shop. It had been there more than forty years and was once popular. Now, a dwindling number of faithful regulars still dropped in for their traditional arthritis remedies, but it was no longer enough to pay the rent.
The owner was a white-haired old man called Mr. Robins, who lived in a flat above the shop. One evening, just before closing time, he sat at the counter with the day's meagre takings and a pile of bills. He sighed and put his head in his hands.
The door opened, and a young woman entered. She was dirty, her clothes were torn, and she shivered in the cold. "Please help me," she begged him, "I've had nothing to eat all day."
Mr. Robins was a kind-hearted man, so he sat her down, brought her a hot drink, and made a bowl of porridge from the shop's last bag of oats. She looked around as she ate, taking in the empty shelves and the peeling paint on the walls.
She finished the last spoonful and put down the bowl. "Thank you," she said. "You're very kind, and you have proved yourself worthy."
There was a flash and a loud bang, and the room filled up with smoke. When it had cleared, the beggar was transformed into a beautiful young woman in a black velvet cloak. "Because you are a good man, I will help you," she told the astonished shopkeeper.
From somewhere in her cloak, she took out a dusty leather-bound book and a cauldron. "Now. What can I make for you?"
Mr. Robins could only stare.
"Come on!" she urged. "What is it your customers most desire?"
With an effort, Mr. Robins pulled himself together. "Er… to stay young, I suppose."
She flipped through the pages. He glimpsed recipes for soups and stews, but also 'Love Potion' and 'Memory Tonic.' Finally, she stopped at 'Elixir of Youth.'
She bustled around the shop, helping herself to ginger, rosewater, primrose oil, and other ingredients and tossing them into the cauldron. Finally, she muttered, 'and a hair from a witch's head.' She pulled out a single dark hair and added it to the mixture, which boiled despite there being no heat.
Eventually, she presented Mr. Robins with a tiny vial containing a clear liquid. "Mix one drop with half a pint of water," she said. "I will be back in a month to make more." Then, with a pop, she vanished.
There was just enough for twenty doses. So he gave one each to the first five old ladies who came into the shop the following day. Within days, they returned and brought their friends. Their wrinkles were gone, the colour had returned to their hair for the first time in decades, and they had the vigour and energy of people half their age.
The young witch was as good as her word, returning every month to make more of the elixir. But Mr. Robins could not keep up with demand, despite charging more and more for it. He thought that he might be able to make more himself, but it would be no good without the hair from the witch's head, and she refused to give him more than one at a time. Although he was now making enough money for a good living, Mr. Robins grew greedy and resentful.
On the witch's fifth visit, he was ready. He might not be able to make the Elixir of Youth, but he knew enough to mix a strong sleeping draught. As she appeared in the shop, he offered her a glass of wine 'to toast our partnership.' She accepted and drank. He caught her as she collapsed, carried her up to his flat above the shop, laid her on his bed, and cut off all her hair.
Going through her pockets, he found the cookbook. He ransacked his own shop for the ingredients he needed and then busied himself in the kitchen, making bottle after bottle.
When he had finished, he looked at the bottles on the table, under the table, on every surface. He had hundreds of doses and enough hair left to make many thousands more. What difference would one make now? He took a bottle and drank it.
Instantly, he felt fresh energy course through his muscles. His back straightened. He took off his glasses and could see perfectly. He ran through to the bedroom, where he had a full-length mirror. His face was unlined, his hair chestnut brown.
There was a groan from behind him, and he turned as the witch's eyes fluttered open. She looked at him sleepily, confused, then she put her hands to her bald head. Her eyes widened as realisation dawned.
Mr. Robins braced himself for her anger, but instead, she just looked sad. "You fool," she said. "You greedy fool."
"I'm sorry," he said. "But can't you just cast a spell to regrow your hair?"
"Give me my cookbook back."
He went to the kitchen and returned with the book.
"Turn to the last page," she said.
He did. Inside the back cover, in an ornate script, was written:
Magic, freely given, brings comfort and health
But when taken by force, it means only death.
A chill gripped his heart. "Take the magic back!" he said, panicking. "I don't want it!"
She shook her head. "It's too late."
When the shop hadn't been open for a week, the landlord asked the police to break in. They found only the body of a young man whose heart had suddenly stopped. No one ever worked out who he was, what he was doing there, or what had become of old Mr. Robins.