MY FAMILY LIVED at the edge of the wood, some distance from the village. Mother dealt in herbs—in fungus that grew in colorful shelves from mossy trees; in teas made with anise and pennyroyal and dogbane. The village folk came if they missed their bleeding. They came when their man-parts would not obey. They came to her for watery bowels and coughs and sties. They came, but they feared her.
Brother went out with Father most mornings, dragging a wooden litter held together with leather straps. It cut narrow grooves through the fallen leaves. Often we could hear the steady thwack of their axes or the coarse scraping of the whetstone on the blade. They returned near dusk, sweaty and tired, the litter laden with heavy rolls of wood.
I went out with Mother in the early mornings. I learned to recognize the mushrooms that could be eaten and those that could not. We searched out berries in their season, collected laurel leaves and tender shoots of wild asparagus. I shinned up into the wooden rafters of our cottage and hung our treasures to dry in the smoke of the fire. When they were crisp and ready I helped to grind them fine with mortar and pestle and wrap them in tiny bags made from animal bladders.
The villagers came and passed their coins to us. Some traded chickens or skins of wine. None of them ever looked Mother in the face. Even their children avoided us.
So it was no surprise they turned on her when the famine came.
It was a cold summer. It rained and rained. The sky was perpetually overcast and gray. Heavy with mist. Grain rotted in the fields. Mold spoiled the feed laid by for the animals. Children grew sick and died, and Mother’s teas were unable to save them.
We were better off than most. It was a sparse summer and likely to be a sparser winter, but we had the forest. Mushrooms thrived in the damp weather and I knew of a blackberry bramble that formed a hedge along the edge of the creek. We snared an occasional rabbit.
The villagers began encroaching on our woods as the summer wore on. The men hunted for deer and boar, though they were reluctant to go too far into the wood. Women and children cut paths through the undergrowth in search of watercress and wild lettuce.
They were not foresters, however. They were chandlers and butchers and hoopers. Many died or grew ill from eating the wrong mushrooms or picking the dark berries from nightshade plants.
One evening a group of villagers threw stones and curses at our house. We stayed inside, huddled fearfully around the fire. I wanted to throw the rocks back at them. I wanted to plant a stone between the eyes of ugly old Wilhelm the tallower, who had ten children and still came to Mother regularly for herbals to lift his manhood. Father told us to stay away from the windows and to say nothing.
They left eventually. But the next night the eaves of our thatch caught fire, and the south corner of the roof burned before the rain and damp smothered it.
It was a miserable time. Mother grew ill and rarely rose from her bed. She had sudden fevers that raged for days, leaving her limp and helpless. I ventured out into the wood as often as I could, gathering fruits and herbs, doing the things that Mother typically did. It wasn’t enough. I knew enough to help, but too little to provide. There were too many folk in the forest now, scavenging for food. Village men and older boys.
The baker’s apprentice blocked my path one day in the little bramble patch alongside the stream. He was near full-grown with a pock-scarred face and a heavy, lumpish body. “These are my berries.” Dark seeds clung to the corners of his mouth.
I tried to slip around him. He sidestepped, flung out an arm that knocked me to the ground. I bit his finger and tasted blood.
He was atop me then, pressing down like a fall of stones. He mumbled as he hiked up my dress—“filthy witchspawn…”
I yelped, thrashed. A juice-stained hand cupped my mouth. I might have been a mosquito for all the futility of my struggle.
I heard, very faintly in the distance, a voice. I thought it a birdcall at first, or perhaps the high sound a mouse makes before it is snatched up by a hawk. Again, nearer this time. Brother’s voice, calling my name.
The baker’s apprentice froze, like a hare startled while feeding. I could almost feel his ears lift. His weight eased…just slightly, just enough. I threw a sharp elbow into his navel, felt the grunt of surprise.
I slithered out from beneath him and into the dense berry brambles where he could not follow, tearing long scratches on my arms and face. I called to Brother then, breathless. “Coming. I am coming.”
I returned home torn and bloody, empty-handed. Father questioned me, but I told him I’d been frightened by a boar and ran all the way home.
He must not have believed me because the next day he went out alone and sent Brother with me. I’d brought nothing home to eat the evening before and our situation was desperate. The village folk paid Father only a tiny portion of what they once had for his wood, much of which was damp and unburnable. The price of food, when any could be bought, was beyond our means.
We wandered up along the stream, dropping a random berry or stalk of wild celery into our knapsacks. The sky was overcast. The leaves dripped, dripped, dripped. The bank was picked clean of mushrooms, and there were few berries to be found. We approached the blackberry patch cautiously and saw the baker’s apprentice leaning against the bole of a tree.
I almost cried for hatred of his blank, pocked face. Brother tugged on my arm. We crossed over to the far side of the stream on a fallen elm trunk. I had never been to that side of the water. It was a boundary of sorts that Mother and I never crossed. The forest on the far side always looked denser, darker. There was something sinister and forbidding about the heavy foliage.
I said so but Brother just laughed. “I went over with Father once,” he said. “Tisn’t any different from this side.”
It was different, though. I could feel it as soon as I set foot on the other side. The trees crowded closer. We tried to stay along the bank of the stream but the briars were too thick and forced us away. Paths through the scrub were more difficult to find and navigate.
We found the mushrooms we were looking for in abundance—satyr’s beards on rotten stumps; pink shelves like a fish’s gills; white-gray clusters that resembled the tails of wild grouse. There seemed to be no end to them. We filled our knapsacks and stumbled on, pulled through the trees by a splash of white here, a flash of dull yellow there. There were coneflowers too, and yarrow, and little white blooms of chamomile. I collected them all until our knapsacks overflowed.
We sat down on a little patch of dry ground in the lee of a willow. Rain fell in a gentle, whispering curtain. I broke a woody stem of celery in half and we shared it between us. Aside from the rain it was eerily quiet. I wondered how far we’d come and which way led back to the stream. But Brother did not appear worried, so I said nothing.
We got up after a spell. I followed him out into the gray damp. The knapsack was terribly heavy. I shifted it from arm to arm, and after a while I stopped to remove some mushrooms and place them into a neat pile on the ground. We’d come back to get them tomorrow, I told myself. We walked for a while. I looked for trampled weeds, for some familiar tree. Anything that indicated we’d come this way on our path inwards.
The leaves dripped, dripped, dripped.
I had to hurry to keep up. Brother thrust aside branches, stumbled through patches of reddish ivy. I could not see his face. But his back was straight, tight as a bowstring.
We hurried on until my legs gave out, and my knapsack spewed its contents into the slimy brown leaves. I hugged my knees to my chest and wept. Brother stood over me and urged me to get up, but I stayed curled on the ground. He sat down beside me and put his hand on my arm.
There was no sun. It grew dark by shades, incrementally. There were queer rustlings in the trees. We chose to spend the night against the trunk of a pine. The tree shed most of the rain and the carpet of brown needles made a soft bed.
It grew cold. A little breeze stirred the canopies, dropping more rain and icing my skin. I lost feeling in my fingers and toes.
Brother fell asleep with his head in my lap. His breath was raspy and hot.
I saw the light a short time later, though I was sure it hadn’t been there before. It was warm, a square of orange light through the trees. I watched it for a while, eyes half-closed. It flickered. A shadow passed in front of the light.
I shook Brother from his sleep. His skin was hot and damp to the touch. We approached cautiously, lurching along through the dark trees.
The cottage sat in the middle of a small clearing. There was a little trickle of pale smoke from the roof. Firelight flickered in the unshuttered windows.
Brother slipped ahead with scarcely a pause. When I didn’t immediately follow he turned back and whispered—“come.” His voice was harsh and dry, like dead leaves rubbing together.
We moved out of the trees, into the open clearing. The dark tree-shapes loomed like grasping shadows over the little house.
Brother crept forward to one of the windows and stood on tip-toe to peer in. I hunched down behind him. I could feel the thud of my heart in my ears. “A lady,” he whispered. “And bread.”
He didn’t have to tell me that last. I could smell the smoky-sweet scent of baking bread. It hung throughout the clearing like a fog.
He pulled my hand anxiously. The cottage door was framed by wet ivy, and Brother beat his fist on the wood. Even the door gave a solid, comforting sound. It swung open silently. The figure in the door was backlit, shadowing her features. The firelight illumined her hair with an aura of orange light.
“Come in,” she said. She did not sound surprised to see us, here in the night in the middle of the forest. She backed out of the doorway and we stepped into a cocoon of warmth that made my eyelids heavy. Her face was visible now. She had fine features. Large brown eyes. An enigmatic smile. A Lady’s features.
She brought us into the cottage, fed us warm bread slathered in honey. She gave us hot mint tea sweetened with more honey. The food and drink was bliss after the cold rain of the wood. The Lady laid the knuckles of her hand against Brother’s forehead and clucked to herself. His eyes were heavy-lidded and red. She laid him a bed of rushes in the corner near the fire.
She sat down across from me and watched as I ate greedily, licking honey from the crisp heel of brown bread. I couldn’t stop myself. I ate and ate. She smiled and passed me a large apple, glossy and impossibly red. The juice ran down my chin.
“It is good to have company,” she said finally, without taking her eyes from me. “It grows lonely here.”
I nodded. She was kind.
I slept near to Brother on a bed of rushes as soft as down. When I woke the morning sunlight was slanting through one window. Brother felt cooler to the touch, but his face was flushed. The Lady was gone. The fire burned as it had the night before, no larger or smaller. I got up to hang the blackened kettle to heat on a hook above the fire.
The Lady returned carrying a risen ball of brown dough on a wooden platter. She moved to the far side of the hearth, opened a blackened metal oven door that belched out a gust of heat, and slid the dough inside. The door closed with a metal clang.
She smiled at me and pointed toward a clay dish of ripe strawberries in the center of the table. I had not seen a ripe strawberry all year.
She moved over to kneel by Brother’s side, caressing his hair back from his brow with a gentle hand. “He is doing better,” she said. Her voice was soft. “His fever is not so fierce. It will take time.”
I nodded, nibbling at one of the juicy-sweet strawberries. I thought of Mother and Father. Mother was ill. Father would be waiting for us. We’d left our knapsacks somewhere back in the trees, back where we’d been resting when I saw the light of the cottage. I would have to go back and find them.
I picked up another strawberry and savored a bite from the tip.
Brother grew better over the next few days. His fever broke but he was unable to do more than sit in our makeshift bed while we fed him bread and honeyed tea. I helped the Lady with the chores. We milled the grain at a little hand-turned stone mill alongside the cottage and kneaded the dough. She stored sacks of threshed grain in a little outbuilding, though it was unclear where they came from. The fire never died, and though I never saw her shovel coals into the little stone oven alongside the fire, every morning there was a fresh bed of white coals to be raked out for the bread baking.
I was as content as I’ve ever been. I feasted on rich, leavened bread and golden honey, on sharp mint tea and ripe fruits. These seemed in never-ending supply. Apples the golden color of sunlight. Juicy raspberries heated with honey and served in trenchers of unleavened bread.
Brother was different. He was quiet. The Lady was good to him but less affectionate. He received the same food and drink, but they rarely spoke to one another. She was like a candle around me. Bright, smiling. She was a hooded lamp with my brother.
“Don’t you see what is happening?” he asked me one morning while she was away from the cottage, gathering hazelnuts and berries. “She is a witch. I’m not getting better. I haven’t a fever, but I’m still weak. She will keep me weak and feed me until I’m fat enough to eat, then she will bake me in her oven.”
He was quite serious. I squirmed. I knew she was a witch. How else did the fire burn without tending, or the sacks of grain in their storage never lessen? How else did she gather fruit where there was none to be found?
“Why would she eat you?” I asked. “There is plenty here to eat.”
“Witches do not eat bread,” he hissed. “Do you know nothing? Witches eat flesh.”
I didn’t believe it. I’d seen the Lady eat the bread. But Brother was a year older than I, and wiser. He hung occasionally with the village children. He listened to their stories. Surely he would know?
“What about Mother and Father?” he asked. “Have you forgotten? Mother is ill.”
“We do not know the way back,” I said. “And you are too weak to walk.”
I watched the Lady more carefully after that, and took less joy in her presence. She noticed my unease and grew colder toward my brother. Brother did not get better right away. It was a slow recovery from that single night of fever. His muscles were weak and he could do little more than a morning walk around the house before he collapsed into bed, spent.
I grew used to the routine of the days and lost count of them. One day was much the same as the next. The weather scarcely changed. It was bright and sunny and warm. It had not rained since the night we’d arrived.
We milled the grain, gathered acorns and hazelnuts, pressed wild white grapes for wine. Brother grew distant. He rarely spoke. He pushed himself to walk further each day—around the house, around the clearing—but returned exhausted and pale. He had grown rounder, fleshier.
One dawn he disappeared into the woods and had not returned by mid-morning. I fretted that he had gotten hurt, or had returned home without me. Home, I thought. It was a foreign thought now. What was home? This was home. Here. Not the dark and smelly cottage at the edge of the wood with the charred thatch roof and no food.
“He will return,” the Lady said, as if sensing my worry.
She was right. He stumbled into the clearing near midday and collapsed on the short grass. We helped him to his feet and into bed, where he slept until the following morning.
“We are prisoners here,” he whispered to me then. His voice was rough. “I tried to find the stream again. I walked and walked only to end up back here.” He took a breath. “I couldn’t find our knapsacks.”
I had forgotten about the knapsacks. When we’d first come here I’d been so intent on going back out to find them, but I supposed that now they had all gone to rot. It seemed so long ago.
A few days later he tried again. He asked me to come. I didn’t want to. But he was so sad and he begged so pitifully that I didn’t have a choice. He woke me at dawn. Already my Lady was gone from the cottage. I don’t know where she went most mornings, but we rarely saw her sleep. I planned to be back by lunch, and hoped she wouldn’t be too worried. I took a pocketful of white stones and dropped them along our path so we could follow them on our return.
The forest was damp with dew. It glittered like tiny crystals on the leaves. We started off in the direction from which we’d first approached the house. My eye caught something in the shadows beneath a tree. It was our knapsacks. They were half-covered by fallen leaves. The fabric had rotted away in places. Moss hung from them like green beards. They might have been there for years instead of weeks.
Brother looked at them and said nothing, but his lips tightened.
We walked for hours. I wondered if we were retreading the same ground, but we never stumbled across any of the stones I had laid down. We gathered up a few blueberries and some desiccated white-capped mushrooms for lunch. Brother panted as he leaned back against the base of a trunk.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. The forest had darkened. The leaves hung heavy and still.
“We should turn back,” I said. I was out of stones. The forest looked the same in every direction.
Brother shook his head.
We went on. The thunder grew nearer. The treetops thrashed. Branches creaked and moaned. Heavy raindrops drummed on the leaves. The forest around us grew as dark as night. I could scarcely see Brother. Twigs and leaves spiraled down. Somewhere nearby a tree crashed to the ground with a rending, splintering roar.
Brother took my arm as he pushed through a hedge of bushes. We found ourselves back in the little clearing. Rainwater cascaded from the cottage roof like a sheet of tarnished silver.
We were soaked and dripping when we came through the door. The Lady stood at the window, watching the rain. A flash lit the window momentarily and its crash shook the timbers. She turned as we entered, anger evident in her face. Brother turned away and went to a seat by the fire. She continued to watch me, her dark eyes flashing.
“I’m sorry…we got lost,” I muttered, head down.
She said nothing.
I went and sat beside Brother, in front of the fire. I cowered at his side. The storm slowly lost its fury. It settled into an even, steady rain that chattered against the thatch.
After a while the Lady brought us both a cup of hot tea, thick with honey. She no longer looked angry, only sad. She tore a warm loaf of bread into two sections and shared it between us.
Only the creak of the wind and the occasional crackle of the fire disturbed the stillness.
“How do we get home?” Brother asked finally.
“You are too weak to go home,” she said. “It is not time yet.”
“You have kept us here,” he said. He looked up briefly at the Lady and then quickly away. I could hear what he had not said—You will eat us.
I had not believed him. But I had seen her eyes when we returned. They were not the kind eyes I knew.
“I have not kept you here. You have been free to go, as you went today. You do not know the way home. I cannot help you. I have been here longer than any person should be alone. I cannot leave.”
Brother slumped in his chair. Silence returned. The fire popped, sending sparks up the stone chimney. Brother went to bed early, and in the candlelight of the cottage the Lady sat at the spinning wheel and spun brushed flax into thread. The treadle creaked with each rotation.
“You want to leave?” she asked. She did not look up from her work, but I could see the cords of her neck, the bulge of her clenched jaw.
I did not know how to answer. “My mother…” I began. My voice faded to a whisper. I could scarcely remember Mother’s worn face.
“Your brother fears me,” she said. “I cannot let you go. I haven’t the power or the will.”
I heard hunger in her voice. Hunger for what? I cannot say, and still do not know. I think now that it was not what I feared then.
Her voice tailed off. The wheel continued to spin, round and round and round with each creak of the treadle. I did not sleep easy.
Brother shook me awake me before dawn. The cottage was still dark, though some flickering light came from the constant fire. I could see from where we lay that the Lady’s cot was empty, a disheveled pile of pale linen and straw.
“I know how to get home,” he whispered. Then he told me what he planned.
The Lady returned before breakfast. I helped her as usual with the kneading of the dough and the shaping of the loaves. Brother stayed in bed, feigning illness. I nibbled at some of the strawberries, though I had no appetite. She did not speak. I could not have spoken.
I carried the dough across the room on a wooden platter. She swung open the metal door to the oven, went down on hands and knees to rake aside the coals, to clear a space for the dough. Everything happened so fast. She grunted in surprise. I dropped the platter to the floor, reached for the hot iron door. The latch fell into place with a terminal rattle. A white coal rolled away and laid smoking on the floorboards. She screamed only once. Then all went quiet.
The sun was just cresting the treetops when we finally set out. We had gathered all of the Lady’s food we could carry—a basket of berries, two partial loaves of bread, a clay jar of golden honey. Brother had a heavy sack of grain slung over his shoulder, though he had to stop every few steps to switch arms.
We came to the stream not more than a quarter-hour’s walk straight into the trees. Little white stones were strewn all along its bank. We crossed on the same fallen tree that had brought us across. Its bark was gone, stripped away. It lay white and sun-bleached as a bone.
Our little cottage looked different as we approached through the ferns along the edge of the trees. The thatch had been repaired. The little oak sapling that grew near the corner of the house was twice the size I remembered it, its branches brushing the eaves.
Inside it smelled differently. Gone was the dusty scent of feverfew and yarrow and ginseng. Gone were the dried skeletons of herbs in the rafters. The hearth was brushed clean. Father’s straw pallet was in disarray. Mother’s pallet was an empty wooden frame coated in dust. The bed of straw and rushes that Brother and I had used as a bed was swept away. The place smelled of old rushes and damp thatch.
Brother laid a fire in the hearth and opened the shutters. I swept out the old rushes and laid fresh ones that Brother helped me to cut and carry up from the stream. I added some fleabane and lavender to freshen the smell of the place.
Father came home at dusk. He kicked open the door and gaped at us. He looked older. His hair had gone white at the temples. He was thin, unshaven. He wept and hugged us to his breast. We told him our story, the one we had rehearsed. Brother told most of it, because I kept choking on my lies. Father spun us around in happy little circles.
We’d been gone three years, he told us later as we sipped weak tea. Mother had died soon after we left. He’d assumed that we were gone too. Lost in the forest. Eaten by wolves.
She wouldn’t have eaten us, I thought. But I didn’t say it.
We didn’t cross the stream again, though Father asked us to show him the witch’s cottage. Brother refused. The villagers asked questions, and some set off in search of the cottage. None, I think, ever found it.
Brother drowned in the stream a few years later, after the spring rains. It is still a mystery to me how it happened. He avoided the stream. Feared it.
Father passed recently in his sleep. A fever that my teas and liquors could not quench.
The Lady’s cottage looks the same now as the day we left it. The little trail of white stones is still there, glimmering along the path. The sun shines in the open glade. The shutters are thrown wide. Smoke rises from the chimney. Inside, a ruddy fire dances in the hearth. There is a basket of strawberries on the table, a half-finished ball of linen yarn on the spindle. I sit down. Feel the coarse, brushed flax between my fingertips. My foot presses the treadle. The spinning wheel whirls round and round and round.
Adam Smith lives in the Midwest with his incredibly patient wife and two equally impatient children. He enjoys books, baseball, Scotch whisky, hiking, English gardens, and times long past. His short fiction has appeared in a number of places, including Jabberwocky, Flash Fiction Online, Nine, and Allegory. He occasionally reviews books and blathers at his blog, parsing-the-dragon.blogspot.com.
If he could be any sharp thing, he’d “opt for Oscar Wilde’s barbed wit and count myself lucky.”
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