The witch of the woods

Once upon a time, in a small village by a vast forest, there lived a girl named Scarlet, who wanted very much to be a witch.  When she was old enough to be allowed away from her mother’s watchful eye, she listened to the stories the other children told abut the witch who lived in the woods, all pieced together with the imagination of the very young from the vague admonishments of their elders.

Her heart was a flame, one said, and she was forced to eat straw every day even when she did not want to, in order to keep that fire from going out.

She was the reason that sunlight could find its way through the forest canopy and warm them every day, another claimed, because they were presents the Sun-Queen was sending to one of her daughters, blown far away from the lands east of the sun and west of the moon.

The witch of the woods brought the warm summer breezes and sent stinging bugs after those who made her angry.  She drank no water to keep her heart safe.  She wore three layers of fine silk wrapped around her feet to keep from simply setting the ground afire when she walked, and had to send for fresh bales of silk monthly to keep up with her need.

All of these stories and more Scarlet listened to, and when the evening came and most of the other children returned to their own homes, she turned and went deeper into the forest instead, to the home of the witch of the woods.

It was nearly dusk when she stumbled upon the little cottage, where a girl knelt beside the embers of a dying fire, turning the coals with a long stick.  She looked up at Scarlet’s approach, and Scarlet saw, swirling in looping patterns under her dark skin, were dozens of small pale lights, like fireflies on warm summer nights.  The witch-girl got to her feet, which were small and bare, and put her hands on her hips.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.  Her voice was high and sharp, like birdsong and glass.  “I don’t have anything for someone your age.  Go home.”

Scarlet crossed her arms.  “I want to be a witch,” she said.

“If you were not born one, you cannot be one,” the witch-girl said.  She held up both of her hands, to show how the lights under her skin moved.  “You’ll be marked somehow.  If you don’t have the favor of magic, you can only be an herbalist at best.”

“So teach me that,” Scarlet said.  “I am clever and I am old enough to learn my own trade; my mother has said so and my father has said so.  And we will see if I cannot become a witch after all.”

The witch-girl made terrible faces and stomped her feet, but she did not say no again.  When she went into her house Scarlet followed her.  Inside it smelled like smoke and the sharp tang of herbs.  The witch-girl frowned at Scarlet, but she pointed to the table and Scarlet sat.  The witch-girl sat across from her and said, “If you really wish to have lessons, you will have to learn.  But I will teach you no magic.”

To Scarlet’s disappointment, the witch-girl kept her word.  The night passed with Scarlet learning the name of different flowers that could be used to soothe a fever or calm a cough, of herbs that grew in secret dark places and could help to clear headaches and ease stomach pains.  She learned about blends that eased the pain of childbirth and joint pain both, and not to prescribe it for either in too large of a dose, because it could lead to death instead.  In the morning when she returned to her home she accepted the scolding of her parents and slept through the long hot day.

That evening she went back to the witch’s house.  Today the witch was planting something in the tiny patch of dark moist earth by her small home, and her surprise at seeing Scarlet was obvious.

“You came back?”

“I want to be a witch,” Scarlet said.  “But if you will not teach me that, you will teach me this.”

The pattern continued, and eventually — despite their solemn looks and deep frowns — Scarlet’s parents stopped scolding her when she returned in the early hours of dawn and slipped away during the twilight.  Scarlet learned about the mushrooms that could kill a human in an instant and the berries that could feign it.  She learned which leaves to chew for clarity of mind and which to burn instead; she learned how to weave together wreathes that could retain their freshness for weeks rather than days, and which plants were more potent dried and powdered.

She did not, however, learn the witch’s name.

A year passed, and then two, and then three and more.  Scarlet grew from being a child to a woman, but the witch-girl remained the same as she had been that first day, stick-thin and glowing from within.

Then, one evening, she came to the witch-girl’s house for her nightly lesson and found the little campfire cold and no sign of the house’s master.  She went inside and found the familiar furnishings covered over with a thick layer of dust, as if no one had lived there for years — which was ridiculous, for, after all, Scarlet had only seen the witch-girl the previous night.

That night, instead of learning anything, Scarlet searched the forest as far and wide as she could.  Because she did not know the witch-girl’s name, she could not call it, so she found the leaves that improved eyesight and crushed them, rubbing their juices over her eyes; she found the berries that gave energy and stamina and chewed on them as she searched.  In the end, though, she returned to her village empty-handed and dejected.  When she told her parents of her story, her mother clucked her sympathy, but her father — whose mother’s sister had been a witch, and who had told Scarlet most of her stories — shook his head.

“You shouldn’t look for her,” he said.  “They move on sometimes.  No one knows quite why.  Only the Witch of the Endless Sea has never moved, and only she has a title based on that.  The witch of the woods was a young witch.  She probably only stayed so long so that you could learn everything she felt you needed to.”

“Then I will wait for her,” Scarlet said at once.  “She did not teach me everything I needed to know.  I never learned her name.”

“A witch’s name is important,” said her father.  “Even my mother’s sister lost hers after a while.  There is the name they are born with, and the name they choose for themselves.  Even as her student, you probably would never have learned it from her.”

“If a name must be chosen, then I will choose one,” said Scarlet.  “I will wait for her.  I will live in her home and I will keep it until she returns, and I will be the witch of the woods until then.”

“You don’t have the witch’s favor,” her mother said.  “Even if you wait, she might never return.”

“I will wait,” Scarlet said.  “Until she comes back.”

With that, she packed her belongings, and back into the woods she went.

Once upon a time, in a small village by a vast forest, there lived a witch who kept to herself and rarely ventured from her small hut to the village proper.  Even those that remembered no longer called her by the name she had once held; they simply referred to her as the witch of the woods and were done with that.

One day, a traveler came to the village.  She dressed completely in heavy robes despite the heat of the summer day, with a scarf tied over her face and her eyes hidden in the shadow of her hood.  She listened to the stories about the witch of the woods — for the witch’s house lay along the path that would lead to the other side of the forest — and said nothing herself, but afterwards simply rode on into the woods.

When she arrived at the witch’s house, the witch was out tending to the coals of the fire, turning the smoldering coals over with a long stick.

Without dismounting, the traveler said, “Being a witch in name does not mean you’re actually one.”

The witch did not look up from her fire.  “I am a witch even to those that remember me,” she said.  “Not all magic is the sort that comes gifted from the gods.”

“You have probably rearranged all of my furniture.”

“It is my furniture now.”  The witch finally straightened, and pushed back her gray hair.  “Will you come in and see?”

The traveler did not answer, but she did dismount, and as she did, her horse vanished into a cloud of gray dust.

“I have thought of a name for you,” the witch said, as she took the traveler’s hand and refused to let go, even when the traveler tugged back.  “I have been waiting for many years to call you by it.”

“Oh?”  The traveler’s face remained hidden, but her tone was not quite scornful, heavy with meaning.  “And what would that be?”

The witch took the traveler’s wrist with one hand and pulled off her glove with the other.  She raised dark fingers, swirling through with dozens of tiny pinpoints of glowing light, and kissed the knuckles.

“Firefly,” she said.

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