Forest Deep, Forest Dark
by Xenia Melzer
There has to be a witch in the forest.
The words woke her in the early hours of the morning, when the day hadn’t yet won over the night. It was the time of in-between, where things aren’t finished and haven’t begun.
The words had not only woken her, they had pried her from a most beautiful dream. It had been sunny and warm, one of those days at the beginning of summer where the heat hadn’t started to bake the world but was a most welcome change to the cold of winter that still resided in the bones.
She and the boy had been running down a hill, the soft, fragrant grass under their feet like a caress on the skin. Birds had been singing high in the sky, a jubilant song about life, and the buzzing of the bees as they buried themselves in the flowers so vibrant with colors it hurt the eyes: the soothing background to this perfect scenery. It had been so peaceful, so warm in more ways than one.
And it was odd, since she clearly recognized it as a memory. But whose was it? With a sigh, she got up. When her feet touched the cold wooden floor of her sleeping chamber, she recoiled. These days, it was so hard to get warm. Even though it was summer now, the chill never left her joints and bones, held her prisoner and made her movements awkward.
The small mirror above the porcelain washbasin showed her the face of an old woman. Her skin was covered in wrinkles, the corners of her mouth had followed the pull of gravity, hair was growing in weird places while it thinned out on the head, and on her hands the veins stood out like repulsive blue worms coiling under her paper thin skin.
She closed her eyes. Only a few years ago, the mirror had shown an entirely different face, one with big, blue eyes, a charming, if slightly malicious smile, hair as golden as the midday sun and skin so smooth men had killed just to touch it.
Age hadn’t only affected her looks, it had also taken its toll on her mind, confusing her with fragments of memories and shards of dreams. Back then, she had never dreamed. No doubt she was getting weaker, losing her grip. It was high time to replenish her energy, to feed and become whole again.
Determined, she put on the gown that had once adorned her like a queen and was now hanging on her frame like a rag. Time to check on her guests.
Down in the kitchen, the older girl startled from the ashes she had been sleeping in. Her eyes were wide with fear, and she kept her gaze on the heavy walking stick the witch used to get about and to hit her with. The chain around her foot jingled as she hastily scrambled out of the fearsome old hag’s way.
Not paying her frightened prisoner any attention, the witch went into the backyard where she was keeping the other one in a small cage. She hit the bars with the walking stick and a shaking finger was pushed through them.
Gingerly, the witch felt the finger and cursed. “Why don’t you put on any fat at all? How am I supposed to eat my fill when you don’t play your part?”
There was no answer coming from the cage, just the frantic breathing of somebody completely terrified. The witch turned back to the house again. She might be able to wait for another two or three days. The hunger was roaring inside her, demanding to be sated, but she had always been strong.
Besides, such a scrawny meal would only make her more ravenous, and there was no guarantee she wouldn’t devour the other one as well. Which would be foolish, since there weren’t as many people passing through the forest as before. She had to be careful with her supplies. Two more days, she decided, then she would eat, no matter what.
The other one had prepared breakfast and, while the witch was wolfing down the porridge — her teeth weren’t what they used to be — she remembered the times when she had had a satisfying meal almost every day. Men and women, entire families had fallen under her spell and, with their flesh, she had consumed power, and, with their blood, she had replenished her youth.
The bones of her victims she had fed to the trees and made the forest stronger. It grew around her like a shell, like an impenetrable fortress. Sometimes, she felt like a spider in the middle of her web. She had been living here for so long that it was no longer possible to tell where she ended and the darkness of the trees began.
And now she was withering away, losing the connection to the living mind of the woods. It felt like sliding into madness, like drowning on dry land. She was dimly aware that change was never a good thing, that it always came with a price, but there was nothing she could do. Not now, not with her powers drained as they were. Only two more days.
* * *
“Dear sister mine, why are you looking at me in such a strange manner? Has something happened?”
The boy was older now, no longer a child but a strong young man with the overly confident look that was the prerogative of youth. Only in him, this confidence stemmed not from ignorance, but from the things he had seen, the monsters he had slaughtered. And now, he would be eaten.
Before he could react, her hands had shot out, torn his ribcage open and ripped his still-beating heart from his chest. And while he was sinking down to his knees like a rag doll, a look of pure astonishment in his eyes, she held the red, dripping heart in front of her lips, felt the heat trickling down on her skin, enjoyed the first, delightful bite of flesh and blood while the power of her deed surged through her body like lightning, igniting her entire being, showing her worlds beyond imagining. It tasted so good, there was no room for remorse, only for this mind-numbing, overwhelming flavor. She devoured the heart whole and then, with her newfound strength, she carried the heavy body towards the forest, so dark and deep and always so hungry.
In the little hut she had known would be there, had always been there ever since the forest had come to life, she lay the body on the old, creaking table in the dusty, spider-infected kitchen. Blood was dripping down from the carcass as well as from her dress, trickling along the legs of the table, seeping into the wooden floor. She went to the drawer where the knives rested. They all looked shiny and sharp and new.
The first meal in the house was important; it forged the bond between witch and forest, which was why the first victim had to be a sacrifice as well. When she returned to the table, the dust was gone, the cobwebs had vanished and the floorboards had stopped creaking and were freshly scrubbed.
Tendrils of her power reached out, connected with every nook and cranny of her new lodgings, found the roots from which the house had grown, intertwining first with them and then with the trees standing like guardians around the hut. With time, this connection would grow, would expand as far as she pleased, making her one with the darkness and the secrets and the steady rhythm of the seasons.
Her brother was waiting for her on the table, his body already going cold. Like silk, the knife tore the flesh from the bones and the jubilant colors overwhelmed her, made it impossible to wait until it was cooked, to bear seeing the vibrant red turn into grey.
Hungrily she consumed her own flesh and blood, the ultimate sacrifice to the forest, the most delicious meal she ever had. And to think they had been so happy when they had escaped from here... For both of them, the circle had finally closed.
There has to be a witch in the forest.
* * *
She woke, tears streaming down her face. Now she remembered. They had been so small, so hungry and lost. And the old woman had been so friendly, despite her terrible looks. She had fed them, given them soft beds to sleep in, had even read them a goodnight story.
It had all been a lie, a terrible, stinking lie to lure them in, to make them feel safe. The witch had been worse than their parents, who had only aimed to get rid of them. The old woman had wanted to feed on them, take their lives to replenish her own.
For almost two months they had been in the hut, and she had been serving the hag and cooking meals for her brother to fatten him up. When the dreaded day had come, she had gathered all her courage to save her brother and herself. She wondered how she could have forgotten the terrible scream when she pushed the witch into the baking oven, or the ominous clang with which the door had shut.
And the treasure! How could she have forgotten about the treasure they had found? Trunks filled with the finest jewelry, gold and silver, diamonds and pearls, silk and lace to dress a queen. It had been so hard to decide what they should take with them, and in their haste, they had failed to notice how the house itself started to age, how the planks turned grey, how dust settled down everywhere, how the spiders started to weave their nets. As if the span of a decade happened within a heartbeat.
They hadn’t looked back once, or they would have seen the trees apparently closing in on the house, obscuring it from view while the clearing in which it had been turned into a thicket. Taking the riches had been all they did, or so they thought, and for a long time they lived in peace. Of course the nightmares started only shortly after they had returned home, but she had put it down to the terrible things they had endured.
Until that one sunny day, when her brother had come over for a short visit, as he so often did, and something inside her just tore.
There has to be a witch in the forest.
Ancient and dark was the voice. Until now, it had only spoken to her in her dreams, the words trickling into her mind like poison, weakening her resolve and slowly taking her soul. It had been ready then, she had been ready then, and so her brother’s blood had flown and woken the witch again.
That had been more than three hundred years ago. Their story had become a fairy tale, something to frighten little children and to amuse the older. And the heart of the forest was still beating slowly, in the rhythm of the seasons, always there, hanging on to the edge, keeping the darkness so that it wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the light.
Time moved on, people changed, there were more and more of them and it took more and more power to maintain the barriers that would keep intruders out. She had eaten so many in order to protect the forest, to protect the darkness. Until there was so much magic drenching the trees, overflowing in the brooks, dripping off the leaves that the forest itself was in danger of being forgotten, of sliding off the edge it was supposed to guard. She had gotten weaker as fewer prey found their way into her world of magic and shadows. Weak enough to become prey herself.
Now she knew why she had been waiting to devour her guests, why she had hesitated. Her time had come.
The older girl was already waiting for her when she hobbled down the stairs. The witch recognized the defiant, determined look in her eyes as one she once had shown as well. A smile crept on her lips, turning her face into a hideous mask, no doubt. The forest had already chosen her successor, the steady beating would never cease.
There was only one thing she truly regretted. If she had to die, she would have preferred to do it under her own name, but she still couldn’t remember. What does a thing without a soul need a name for? It was a treacherous thought, voiced by the darkness, and of course it was right. What did she need a name for? Once she was gone, there would be nothing left but the memory of something evil. Who she had been would merge with whom the others before her had been and who those coming after her would be. No need for names, no need for individuality. There has to be a witch in the forest. Nothing else mattered.
When the girl, frightened to her core, her heart thumping in her chest like a war drum, pushed the evil witch into the oven, she thought, only for a moment, that there was somebody else in the fire, a boy, with freckles on his nose and a cheerful smile on his lips. But that wasn’t possible, was it? For there was nobody here besides the witch, herself and her sister out in the cage. She must have imagined things, frightened as she was.
The girl listened to the shrill screams of the witch as she burnt to ashes, unable to move until silence rang out like a last farewell to the former owner of this house of terrors. Then she managed to get on her feet and free her sister. Together, they roamed their former prison, ogling the riches gathered in all the otherwise bare rooms, taking as much as they could carry.
Finally, they stepped outsdie, holding hands, overjoyed that they were still alive. And this time, there was no mistaking it. The happy laughter of a boy and a girl accompanied them as they left the clearing and made their way back into the world.
Copyright © 2015 by Xenia Melzer