Alison McBain lives in Connecticut with her husband and two daughters. When not writing, she practices origami meditation and draws pictures all over the walls of her house with the enthusiastic help of her kids. You can find out more about forthcoming work and read her blog at alisonmcbain.com or follow her on Twitter @AlisonMcBain.
by Alison McBain
“In the forest lives an old woman,” said Ellie’s mother. “She will eat you if you are bad. Mind me or else.”
It was hard for Ellie to take her mother seriously. She was old enough to know the difference between the village superstitions and her mother’s tales. But still, she said yes. She would watch her brother.
Once she agreed, her mother tied on a scarf and left Ellie standing in the doorway holding baby Jackson. The girl watched her mother walk out through the front gate without a backward glance at the two she left behind.
Jackson was especially fussy today. He cried as Ellie fed him sloppy porridge; he stole the spoon and threw it on the floor. Then he spit his meal up all over Ellie.
“Shh,” she tried to soothe him. “Shh.” His face brightened and swelled like a birthday balloon. She wanted to pop him, to deflate his puffed-out cheeks and screwed-up fists that batted at her. She wanted to leave him crying by himself and go off to play. He would cry whether she was there or not—she couldn’t soothe him.
The sky darkened outside. Mother could take hours, wherever she went to. Ellie had asked several times if she could come along, but had been told no. “It’s grown-up stuff,” she was told the first time. “When you’re older,” the next time. Finally her mother screamed, “No! Stop asking!”
So she stopped.
Jackson wailed as she bounced him up and down in her arms. She pleaded with him, but he ignored her. She changed his diaper, but he peed on her. She sang a song while he hit her in the nose.
Her mother’s words boiled up inside of her and she shouted, “No! Stop crying!”
This only made him squeeze more tears out and scream harder.
Finally, she put him in his crib and covered him in a blanket that he immediately kicked off. That was it—she couldn’t take it anymore. She walked through the door and shut it behind her.
The air outside was still and heavy with electricity. The wooly clouds were dirty with potential, low and grey and grimy. Guilt filled her throat as she walked away, but she did not turn around. The back of her head crawled with the wrongness of Jackson left behind, alone and crying in his crib.
Ellie slunk into the trees, but didn’t go far. Of course, she promised to some nameless entity inside her head, she would return in a minute and obey the summons of her brother’s cries. Of course, she wouldn’t leave him alone for long.
But she lingered at the edge of the woods. The trees leered at her with twig teeth, and she idled beneath them in a tortured mix of freedom and shame. Another minute and she would return to the house, rescue Jackson from his crib and hold him until their mother returned. She would be good, after this next minute.
Or maybe this one.
Perhaps a couple more.
She watched the clouds swing over their house in the small clearing as she leaned her head back against the base of a large and knobby tree. The sky roiled like boiling soup and she huddled in her coat against the growing winds of the storm. Her coat was old and warm, too large for her by far. It had been her father’s, her mother once told her, but would say no more about it.
Ellie closed her eyes against the wind and snuggled down inside the coat. She felt comforted by it, sheltered in a cocoon of her father’s long-ago protection.
When she next opened her eyes, it was to darkness and wailing. She jumped to her feet. A confusion of thoughts tumbled through her head, until she remembered Jackson left alone in the house. Her mother would be livid at her for abandoning him, no matter that she had never left sight of their home.
Except… how could she have gotten so turned around? She looked left and right, but there was nothing but forest and more forest. There was no clearing, no small and familiar cottage. The branches of the trees loomed out of the darkness like the tales she had heard about sinister creatures of the woods, and Ellie remembered her mother threatening her before she left with the idea of the old woman of the forest.
The wailing was louder now, and Ellie was frightened until she realized it was the wind moaning through the branches. A rumble echoed through the sky, and the first cold drops fell down, white as the trees were black, the stark colors of nighttime.
She had no choice but to walk or freeze. Choosing a direction at random, she shuffled her feet forward, huddling inside her coat. The snow fell down, an endless kaleidoscope of sky demons dancing over her head. Her toes hurt, then numbed, and her feet lost feeling next. Still, she walked and the snow fell.
Her head was tucked down below the collar of her coat for warmth, and she was not sure what made her look up, but when she did, she saw a light flickering in the distance. The clearing! she thought gratefully. Home.
The idea filled her with longing, a visceral tug that sped her numb feet and spurred her to a careless speed. She tripped and sprawled on the ground, knocking away her breath. She lay flat on a bed of snow and struggled to take air in and out. The cold of the hard earth seeped up her arms and into her chest so that she coughed convulsively when she had recovered from the shock of the fall. Can’t lie here, she thought, and pushed to her feet. There was the light, her only hope of safety, and she walked forward again to follow it.
The light led her deeper into the woods. The trees were thicker, and the ephemeral brightness receded before her so she never got closer. In despair, she thought of will-o-the-wisps and what it would mean to be lost in the forest during a winter storm.
As if sensing her ragged emotions, the light flickered again and coalesced into a stable image. Ellie stumbled, fighting with the entwined branches that blocked her way. It seemed there was a clearing on the other side, but the trees were rooted fast and held firm against her numb fingers. She beat at them with her useless hands and shrieked wordlessly into the night.
At her cry, the branches suddenly gave way and she fell forward into a small, open area where the trees curved like a roof and bent around the sides of the space as tightly as a thicket. In the heart of the opening was a small cottage, just about the size of her home. Lights shone from all the windows but, oddly, the house looked like it was perched on a nest of dried sticks that elevated it up from the ground.
The wind howled and the snow blew against her back, urging her forward. Fear beat through her skull as hard as the fingers of the wind, yet she still hesitated despite the impetus of cold. Finally, she walked forward until she reached the door and knocked. It was a timid rap, but she could hear the echoes inside as if she had smote upon the door with all of her force.
Quite clearly, she heard a voice say, “Enter.” The tone of the voice was as cold as the wind and chilled her through, much as the winter storm had. But she had come here and had no other choice, so she pulled the latch and stepped inside.
The warmth of the fire inside was overwhelming after the cold, and she felt the sting of heat on her face like a slap. She quietly closed the door behind her, her eyes drinking in the simple room. A trundle bed sat in the far corner by the fireplace, and in between the two was a scarred table and chairs. An old woman sat in one of the chairs and she had a knife in her hand. It was as long as the woman’s arm and she held it pointed at the door. No, pointed at Ellie.
“It’s a cold night for a cold heart,” said the woman. Then she laughed, splinters of ice edging through it. “What are you doing wandering the woods on such a night?”
“Please, ma’am, I got lost,” Ellie said. She waited next to the door, dripping with melting snow, afraid to venture further. The woman put down the knife and smiled, but the smile brought no comfort. Her face was a nest of wrinkles and her mouth had few teeth. Around her neck was a string of long, off-white beads that tinkled strangely as she moved. “I beg of you, please let me stay here until the storm ends, and then I can be on my way.”
“You beg for my care? You must have a kind heart to expect favors from a stranger. Do you care for others when they need you?”
Ellie’s mind flashed back to her brother and her eyes pricked with guilty tears. “No, ma’am, I do not. My brother needed me, and I left him behind.”
“Aha,” said the old woman. “Well, I am not you. For the truth of your words and the regret in your heart, you are welcome to my fire and to share my meal.”
Stunned by the generosity, Ellie blinked her eyes and the tears fell down. “Thank you.” She swiped the back of her hand across her cheeks. “I will do whatever I can to repay you.”
“Not a wise promise to give to a stranger in the woods,” said the old woman. She stood, and Ellie could see that the old woman was small, no taller than herself. Perhaps the woman had once been larger, but her back was bent with age and her fingers gnarled with it. Still, she moved lightly across the floor to the fire and dished stew into two bowls from a pot suspended over the flames. She thunked them onto the worn surface of the table, and Ellie sat down across from her, feeling as if she were floating in a dream. Her fingers tingled with returning life.
“What is your name, girl?” asked the woman, giving her a spoon. Ellie told her and took a mouthful of the stew. It was so hot it seared her tongue. “Where is your family?”
After a hesitation while she took a bite and chewed it, Ellie told her this also. “So your mother left you alone? Where does she go when she is gone all day?”
“I don’t know,” said the girl. “She will not tell me.”
“Hmm,” said the old woman. By this time, Ellie had eaten her fill and she felt warm and drowsy. Her eyelids began to droop and she had problems listening to the woman, despite trying to be polite.
“Come,” said the voice. “I have blankets in that chest, there. You may sleep before the fire.”
Ellie went where she was directed and curled herself into the blankets. Now warmed through, she fell asleep.
When she woke, Ellie was in her own bed at home. She blinked sleep-furred eyes and glanced around. There, in his crib, was her sleeping brother. Her mother was in the bed next to her, also fast asleep.
Had it just been a dream? She sat up as gently as possible so as to not wake the baby, but was startled by the loud thud of something dropping to the floor. She froze. A rustle of cloth was followed the next minute by a thin wail as Jackson woke.
“Ellie!” grunted her mother, and the girl went and picked up her brother. As soon as she touched him, he quieted and looked at her. His blue eyes crinkled and he smiled. She felt her heartbeat racing in her chest and she held him tightly in her arms in apology for leaving him the day before.
But there had been the thump when she rose. Ellie turned her head to look at the floor, and bent to pick it up. It was heavier than it should be for something so small, and she stood there, Jackson propped on one shoulder, holding the item in her left hand. It filled her palm and glowed with the morning sun streaming through the windows.
Her mother stretched and said, yawning, “What have you got there?”
“A golden heart,” Ellie answered in a whisper.
“A gold—what?” Her mother jumped to her feet and came around the bed. She snatched the object from her daughter’s hands. She tested it with her fingernail, and then her teeth. “Where did you find this?”
Ellie told her about the old woman in the woods. About how she had fallen asleep there and woken here, holding the golden heart in her hand. “An old woman,” murmured her mother. “And she obviously gave you this—but why?” Ellie didn’t know.
“Where there is one, there may be more,” said her mother. “But I don’t trust that you’ll know how to get them. Watch Jackson. I’ll be back.”
So Ellie spent the day watching her brother. Whatever had ailed him before was gone, and they played with the golden heart, which he seemed to enjoy. She would roll it along the carpet, thumpety, thumpety, and he would laugh and clap his hands.
When darkness fell, their mother returned. “A waste of time!” she said, picking twigs from her hair. “I couldn’t find the old woman’s hut. Well, no matter, I will take the gold to town tomorrow to sell.”
“You can’t! It’s mine,” argued Ellie.
“No matter that it was yours. It’s mine now. This means that we can live well, better than we do now. Give it to me.”
Ellie refused, but her mother overpowered her and snatched it away. “You wicked child!” she scolded. “The old woman of the forest will eat you for being bad!”
The girl said nothing. She got little sleep that night, knowing her mother would be selling her heart tomorrow.
Her mother was gone early and stayed away all day. When she returned, she was furious. “No one will buy it! When I showed it to them, they just took one look at me and threw me from their store. Maybe they thought I stole it, or maybe it isn’t gold after all. See, look at my hands. They have turned red from handling it, so something has rubbed off on me. But, no matter. If they won’t take it from my hands, maybe they will take it from yours,” she told Ellie. “Tomorrow, you will come to town with me and sell it.”
“I won’t,” said Ellie, holding Jackson. Her mother moved to take the baby, but Jackson howled and clung to his sister.
“Fine then, see how you like going hungry!” snapped her mother. “If you won’t sell it, then you both can starve.”
The next morning, their mother packed up all the food in the house and carried it with her to town, not once glancing back over her shoulder at the two children standing in the doorway watching her leave. As the hours passed, Jackson cried and Ellie could give him only water from the well to fill his belly. With her own stomach snarling at her, she warmed the golden heart between her hands, and an idea suddenly came to her. Quickly, she bundled up the baby and herself and walked into the woods carrying Jackson.
The trees seemed to bow down before her as she walked and Jackson became quiet. He watched the winter sky, which showed clear blue through the sere branches. Before long, they were at the house in the heart of the woods and Ellie knocked on the door. “Enter,” said the cold voice.
The room was much the same as before. The old woman lowered her knife and put it on the table when she saw them, but said nothing in greeting. “I have returned with my brother,” explained Ellie under the watchful eyes of the old woman. “And I come to thank you for the gift.”
“What gift?” asked the woman guilelessly, then laughed. “I see you are both hungry. Come, there is much in my stew pot today.” She put bowls before them and watched as Ellie fed her brother the soft vegetables in the broth first before touching her own stew. After Jackson was done eating, he played on the floor with the wooden spoon from the pot.
The girl ate steadily and looked at the old woman’s necklace. It was yellow and made of long, thin beads, as if it were made from bones, and the image reminded her of her mother’s threats about the dangers of the woods and old women who ate children. Before she could scare herself, Ellie looked away from the necklace and tried to think only of the warmth and the comfort of the food which filled her empty stomach.
“You have a long journey home,” said the old woman when she was finished. “But you are always welcome here.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Ellie.
“Call me Grandmother,” said the old woman.
“Thank you, Grandmother,” she said dutifully. Smiling, the old woman gestured them on their way.
The trip back didn’t seem so long and the trees nodded at them as they passed. When they got home, their mother was waiting and her face darkened when she saw them. “Where have you been?” she demanded. When Ellie told her, their mother ripped at her own hair in frustration. “Show me this path in the woods!”
So Ellie pointed to where she had walked through the forest, and watched her mother run off into the gathering twilight. The girl put Jackson to bed, rekindled the fire and waited. Eventually, her eyes grew heavy and she fell asleep.
When she woke, the first thing she saw was a kettle hanging over the flames of the fireplace. The pot gleamed as bright as moonlight and the smell coming from it made her mouth water. Jackson must have smelled it too, for he was sitting up in his crib, clutching at the bars and staring at her. She took him out and fed him broth from the pot, and then ate herself. She had never tasted anything so wonderful. The meat was tender and juicy, the vegetables as flavorful as if they had just been pulled from the earth. Jackson laughed and clapped his hands.
The door opened just as she finished eating and her mother stormed in, her hair a rats’ nest. There were scratches on her face, as if she had tried to claw her way through branches and been clawed in return. Her palms were still bright red from when she had touched Ellie’s golden heart and she sniffed the air until she located the silver pot on the fire. The woman let out a shriek and advanced on the stewpot. “Where did you get this?”
Ellie told her about waking to find it there. Her mother dipped a ladle of it into a bowl and began to eat, but she spit it out after several mouthfuls and went gagging to the door. Ellie glanced in the bowl – a wriggling worm bobbed to the surface and then dipped back down into the soup.
“What trick is this, you nasty child?” said their mother on her return. She hauled the silver pot out the door and dumped its contents in the woods. “I will take the pot to town to sell,” she said, straightening her hair.
Ellie stayed silent. She was unsurprised when their mother returned that afternoon, ranting and raving and still carrying the pot. Her mouth was colored a bright green that she swore came from the stew she had eaten and vomited. Between her red hands and green face, she looked like a holiday decoration.
“Tomorrow morning, I will follow you into the woods,” she said. “And we will see how that old biddy does, then.”
And that is what happened. Morning came, and Ellie carried Jackson into the woods. The trees let the two children through easily and their mother pushed in behind them, even though the snarled branches tried to block her way. When they came to the clearing, Ellie almost hoped that the house would be gone or some other such magic, but there it stood, perched upon its pile of twigs. The old woman’s voice called out when the girl knocked and the three of them went into the house.
“Hello, Grandmother,” said Ellie.
“Don’t ‘Grandmother’ her,” said her mother. “I want answers.”
“Answers, hmm,” said the old woman. “I will answer your questions. But, for each you ask, I will ask one also.”
“Fine,” her mother said shortly. “Why have you given Ellie such wealthy gifts?”
“Gifts?” said the old woman. “I have given her nothing from my hands except food and shelter when she was lost and hungry. You may have the same, if you wish.”
“But what about the heart and the kettle? Where did they come from?”
“I think,” said the old woman, “it is my turn for a question.”
“Where do you go when you leave the children?”
“That is none of your business!” said their mother.
“Answer the question. Speak truly.” The old woman’s voice was cold.
“I go nowhere.”
“Hmm,” said the old woman. “Now it is your turn.”
“Why will no one buy the gold and silver?” she asked.
“Because they are not yours to sell.”
“But how would they know that?”
“My turn,” said the woman.
“Ask, then!” shouted their mother.
“Who is the father of these children?”
“I don’t know,” answered their mother, growing pale.
“Hmm,” said the old woman. “Now ask your last question.”
“This can’t be my last question! I have a lot more questions to ask.”
“Nevertheless, this is your last one. Choose it carefully.”
“Fine.” Their mother stared at the old woman, as if she could divine her secrets with the force of her gaze. “Then this is my question. What can I do to get your riches?”
“You can’t,” said the old woman. “For I have none. I already told you that I gave no gifts. All my possessions are in this room that you see. Now, for my last question. Who is the mother of these children?”
Their mother turned the color of the snow outside. “I am. That is enough, old woman.”
“You are right. It is enough.” And with one quick movement, the old woman threw her knife across the room and straight through their mother’s heart.
Ellie screamed and nearly dropped the baby. Jackson, feeling his sister’s distress, started to sob, while the impaled woman hit the floor with a noise like stones falling. Ellie turned horrified eyes from their mother’s body to the old woman, who had not moved from her spot in the chair. The girl cried, “Is this my punishment for leaving Jackson? I promised not to do it again! How could you take our mother from us?”
“Hush, child,” said the old woman in the voice of winter. “I have taken nothing from you. That woman was no mother of yours. Not one word she spoke in this room was true.”
“But… she raised me. She brought Jackson home to be a brother to me,” Ellie said.
“If you were older, you would know that children are not brought home, like a parcel from the marketplace. She stole you away from your real parents and kept you hidden so that she could gain money by promising to return you. You are not the child of that woman. You have a mother and a father who have never stopped wishing to see you again. And your brother is no brother to you. He was taken the same way from his parents.”
“No,” Ellie sobbed. “Why? Why has this happened?”
“It is the way of wickedness,” answered the old woman. “The wicked shall fall before the just. Now, you must return to your family and the baby must return to his.” She got to her feet and made her creaking way over to the two of them. Ellie clutched Jackson fiercely to her.
“No! You can’t take him away from me. He’s mine.”
“Child,” said the woman. “He belongs to himself. You must let him go.”
“I love him!” she cried. “He’s my brother. He’s all I have.”
“Aha!” And with that, the old woman bent over and dipped her finger into the blood pooling under the dead woman. She raised her hand and touched a dot of the blood to each child’s forehead. Ellie was too shocked to resist.
“Stupay s Bogom,” said the old woman. And then the room swirled up around the two children, a whirlwind that encompassed them. When the winds died, the children were gone.
The old woman looked down at the body on the floor and knelt beside it to retrieve her knife. She used the blade to make the first cuts, cleanly and clinically. She had to steady herself as the house stood up on its large and spindly feet, stretching legs like an oversized fowl. Then the cottage shouldered its way out through the grasping trees, taking steps that shook the forest with their power. Using a direction known only to itself, it headed for the place they would be needed next.
She worked as quickly as she could. By tonight, there needed to be more meat for her stew pot.
Copyright 2014 by Alison McBain