The story goes something like this: if you listen closely right at midnight, you can hear a voice wailing in the woods. It’s quiet, often lost under the rustle and creak of the night itself, but it’s there. It’s a true story, they say; it’s the voice of a woman who was abandoned by all she had known and left to wander aimlessly until time ends and all the world turns to dust. If you listen to her for too long, she begins to tell you your future: who you’ll marry, who will betray you, how you’ll die. And then she will tell you that the price for knowing is losing, and so your corpse will be found the next morning, its face twisted into an expression of horror, for all the things you know you have lost.
It’s a true story. Everyone knows this.
One version says this: Lydia was a beautiful girl, lovelier than any other in the entire village. Her eyes were the clear bright blue of midsummer sky, and her hair was dark as coal, struck through with red like the burning points of a flame. And like many beautiful people, she was graced with elegance and poise, confident in her every waking gesture. There was very little that was not hers, if she wished for it: an apple from the grocery, a loaf from the baker, a smile from Tom the soldier boy, when he came marching home. The entire world would lay itself down at Lydia’s feet, and she would want for nothing.
Which meant, of course, that girls who were less lovely and less graceful or charming suffered for Lydia’s presence. Resentment simmers low and deep in this village even now: it was worse once upon a time.
They said that Tom’s old sweetheart was abandoned at the altar, waiting in vain as he snuck into the fields with Lydia to lie under the open drowning blue of the summer sky. In her grief she spat words that took shape and twisted together: for this place is still very near to the crossroads of the world, where there is passage to the land that lies east of the sun and west of the moon. There, magic is still as much a part of life as life itself, and that power is sometimes strong enough to bleed through. So Tom’s sweetheart wept and tore her hair, and her words grew and wrapped around each other until they had become a thing unknown, an effigy with bleeding skin and worn nails that dragged itself out to the fields to find the lovers.
Tom’s fate is unknown. Lydia’s is less kind: her lovely dark hair was torn from her scalp in bleeding clumps; her lovely eyes were gouged out by grasping fingers. Her pale skin was bruised and torn, and when she finally stumbled back to the village, she was no longer lovely, but horrible as the creature that had taken its vengeance on her. None in the village would shelter her, and she was driven, weeping, out into the forest where she faded into a single wailing voice.
That is one story, at least.
Another version says that Lydia herself was a witch, who lived near the edge of the village and wove little charms and spells to keep her living. The village tolerated her presence out of necessity: Lydia’s spells were what kept the rains coming regularly, and the crops growing, and the livestock strong. She kept to herself, and this pleased everyone involved.
In this story Tom was not a soldier, come home from war to marry his sweetheart. Instead, he was a young man who had always had a wandering eye. No one woman could keep him entirely; his heart was a fickle and finicky thing. He had reached a point where all the young ladies of the village who would have him were tired of him, and so he turned his face towards the edge of the village, where Lydia lived and worked her magic. Their courtship is hardly something to tell in detail: he charmed her, she responded, they tryst, and in the morning Tom was gone from her bed, knocking at his last lady’s door, hoping that he could come inside for warmth.
Lydia was furious, of course; she bent her magic and her skill to create a love-charm, so potent that anyone who swallowed it must be loved, or die of the wanting of it. She put everything she had into it, ignoring all her other work. Drought struck the land; livestock and crops alike sickened from lack of water and died. All summer Lydia worked, and in the fall, when the people were angry and restless at their failures, she slipped the charm into Tom’s drink. Immediately he was stricken, and he returned to her door to fall at her feet; his love turned him into a creature that crawled with its belly on the ground and its nails bent and grasping. It made a worm of a man, and he begged and begged, but Lydia merely turned her face away. She laughed when Tom died, writhing as he tried to carve out his heart with his fingernails.
This could not go unpunished, though: there are gods in this land still, though their power is grown faded and dim. There are things that all witches must answer to, and upon Tom’s death, Lydia’s punishment was immediate and swift: she was turned into a voiceless, faceless creature, doomed to wander the woods where she once lived, telling fortunes and stealing the lives of those foolish enough to overstep their bounds as mortal men.
That is another version.
A third story says that Lydia and Tom were siblings. Twins, in fact, with Lydia proceeding her brother by half a day. And none in the village could separate them, even when the time came for Tom to learn men’s work in the field and Lydia to learn women’s craft in the home: they would meet somewhere in the middle, with Lydia staggering under her share of the harvest load and Tom bleeding his fingers on rough thread. None could imagine them as separate beings: they were always hand in hand, and would not tolerate to be separated.
However, this continued through childhood and into adolescence, then beyond that and into adulthood. Tom grew strong and handsome; Lydia grew lithe and beautiful. There was no shortage of men who would gladly have her, or women who peeked behind their lashes at him. Still Lydia and Tom never noticed: they only had each other, with a devotion that stretched from the field and into the house, and then the bed. The story does not say how they were discovered: perhaps it was when Lydia’s belly began to swell with a child that no other man in the village could have given her, or when Tom was found with his head beneath her skirts. Maybe it was when rings appeared on their fingers, or when their father died after shouting he would see them wed before he was in the grave.
Either way, the story ends thus: that Tom, his body black and blue, was hung until his feet dangled in the late autumn breeze, and that Lydia was driven into the woods, her belly beaten and her body left to wait until the forest claimed it. This story mentions two voices: a woman who speaks the future, and a man who speaks the past. Listen to him, and you forget everything you ever were once, and you’re left as nothing more than a shell, sucking your teeth and counting seconds until the numbers mean nothing. Perhaps they never did. There is a variation that says there is a third voice – a high wailing voice, like a child’s – that cries once exactly at midnight and falls silent. A woman who hears this will never be a mother, for even if her belly quickens, the child will pass before the term is over.
That is another way to tell the story.
This is what I have been told: that Lydia was the baker’s daughter who loved Tom, the blacksmith’s son. Their families were friendly, so it was easily decided that when Lydia came of age, she and Tom would be married. Every evening, they walked together, from his father’s forge to her father’s home, and while they were never improper, no one could doubt how very much they cared for one another.
However, that summer there was a drought, worse than had been seen in many years; babes sickened and died in the heat, and crops withered under the unending onslaught of the sun. Men spoke in worried voices about rations and solutions, while women worked to put away what little food that could be found – and everyone gave what they could for the mothers in the village. Lydia’s own sister, Emma, buried two sons during that long awful summer, hollow-eyed and ghost pale with grief.
The heat continued long after autumn and winter should have come, the sun blazing relentlessly down on grass brown and long since dead; hopelessness hung low and thick in the air. Lydia dreamed of marriage, long since put aside in the face of tragedy, and tried not to be bitter; Tom threw himself into work and never let himself be wistful for what he couldn’t have.
A year passed, still the same. Neither Tom nor Lydia spoke of their romance. It was very sad, but people were dying and being practical was more important. Lydia’s sister died at the end of a long hot winter, her lips parched white and thin. Spring came with bitterly strong winds that rattled the dry grass in the fields, and in desperation, the village elders called in a sage, to take the measure of the aching land and divine what caused the drought. The man who arrived in the village was weathered and wizened, and looked dried-out as the land itself. He walked the perimeter of the entire village, then took a handful of dust from the ground that faced the parched forest. He sucked it into his mouth, rolled it, then spat it back to the earth.
“You have bled the land dry,” he said. Mud stained his yellow teeth. “You live too close to the crossroads of sun and moon, where magic bleeds into everyday action. The protections are eroded; the path of the Sun-Queen’s chariot draws too close to your village. The stores are dry; you have bled them out. This drought will follow wherever your people scatter. Someone will need to bleed dry, or this plague will spread.”
Into the silence that followed, it was Tom who spoke up: “I will go, and sleep in the forest,” he said. “I will spill my blood on the earth, and the village will be saved.”
And the elders praised him, as did the sage who had been summoned to the village. The blacksmith’s wife wept, but there was pride in her eyes; the villagers murmured amongst themselves, and their words were all pleased. Only one voice said nothing, lurking at the far edge of the people who’d gathered to watch the sage work: Lydia, who’d buried her sister just a short week before. There were no tears in her eyes, dried as the earth itself, and red as the Sun-Queen’s veil.
That night, though, in the dark hot hours at midnight, there came a scream from the forest: loud, piercing, heartbreaking. People ran from their beds into a sudden downpour of rain and a bright light in the forest; there was the image of a woman immolated in flames that could not be doused by the falling rain. In those long moments, as she twisted and was consumed by fire, turning to smoke and ash and something hollow-eyed and gap-mouthed, she spoke the names of children who had never been born – would never be born – and she called Tom’s name, her fingers leaving red burned marks against his cheek when she vanished. In the baker’s home, Lydia was nowhere to be found.
This is the version I have heard. It is another way to tell the story.
The story goes something like this: if you listen closely right at midnight, you can hear a voice wailing in the woods. A woman’s voice cries out from somewhere lost among the trees, grieving as she wanders, abandoned by loved ones and forever trapped. If you listen for too long, she will tell you your future in detail: your triumphs, your losses, your loves, your despairs. The price for knowing is death, knowing full well what you have lost, and what your death has robbed all those who might have known you. Villagers huddle together and close their windows to keep from hearing the sound as they sleep; it is a woman who lost her soul and devours all the possibilities of anyone unfortunate enough to hear her voice.
It’s a true story. Everyone knows this.