Maya Levine has placed in the Leyla Beban Short Story Contest four times, been a runner-up in the Palo Alto Short Story Contest twice, and placed several times in Microcosms online contest. She has had work featured in Palo Alto Roots Magazine, Enchanted Conversation, Zoetic Press, FurPlanet, MoonPark Review, A Flash of Silver-Green, Weirdbook, and The Eating Disorders Project. She has had a short play performed during Palo Alto Play Palooza.
Beasts of the Woods
by Maya Levine
“Forever?” the witch repeated, squatting so she could look the little girl directly in the eye.
“Forever and ever,” the girl Sima repeated, “and even longer again. You’ll give the voice back and leave forever.”
The girl’s silhouette was filled with the rich red of rage; the air around her hung thick with the scent of old blood. Despite herself, the witch was impressed by how much of the heavy emotion filled the girl. She had enough rage to defy the village men who told her to stay home, enough rage to hunt down the witch haunting the woods, enough rage to trade away her life if she lost their game. Little beast, the witch thought, you little beastly fool. You win and I leave, I win and you stay… but how can I lose?
The witch should have cursed the girl like she’d cursed all the others—this girl of all people could have used the curse of silence. But the girl’s rage was so deeply scarlet and smelled of bonfires and black pepper and blood, and it enticed the witch. She should never have let herself get caught up in the girl’s clenched fists and bright eyes. She should have known better.
“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” the witch asked.
“How do I know you’ll keep yours? You know my name. You have more power than I do.”
The witch breathed deeply. Determination. Skepticism. Anger. The scent of fear, rank, mixed in with the other emotions. Not as disgusting as the terror that had consumed the other children. “You play at being wise when it comes to my power, but here you are, trying to gamble with me.”
The little girl just smirked and held out a hand. Maybe she didn’t truly believe in the witch’s power. Maybe she just wanted a few moments of excitement in a life filled with drudgery and confinement. Or maybe she just thought she was sure of winning.
The men of the village did nothing to get the girl back, but some of the women went out armed with torches and worry fear to trawl the woods. Some of the stronger ones smelled of anger and hope, but all carried fear: afraid when they woke up in their hovels and afraid when they tended their fields, afraid when they walked in the woods and lay with their husbands and carried children. The witch could not see features any longer, but she could see the silhouettes filled by the colors and scents of emotion. And she could hear the voices, she could always hear the womanly voices. Calling, pleading, s. Shouting, entreating:. “Sima! Sima!”
The girl, for her part, smelled of anger. She was a brave little beast, the witch would give her that. She seemed angry, not afraid, to have lost to the witch. She seemed angry, not afraid, that none of the village fathers cared to find her. Her name meant obedience but she didn’t live up to it, and the village fathers hated her for it. At the witch’s table, the little girl sat with a back ramrod-straight, and ate the soup the witch put in front of her with a certain pride.
“I’m a good cook,” the witch said. “You didn’t expect that, did you?”
The girl didn’t respond. She stared past the witch at the far wall with a haughty look, even though she was some little girl from some nowhere village, only the merest step above the pigs that she tended. She kept the minty pride on the surface. Under that was anger, and something gleaming…
The witch scoffed. “Stop thinking about the woods.”
“I can see it,” the witch reminded her. “I can see every bit of you. Or didn’t I prove that?”
The little beast didn’t say anything.
“That life was no better, anyway,” said the witch.
“What do you mean?” the girl demanded. “Those were my people. That was the life I was supposed to live! And you stole me from that!”
“I didn’t steal. You bargained. You lost.”
The girl burned with humiliation. The golden tone still glowed around her heart. She still smelled of hope.
“Remember,” the witch told her.
“Remember our deal.”
The filmy golden wish blinked away.
The witch had the girl help her mash herbs for poultices. She tried to teach the girl to recognize letters and words. The girl shied away from the witch and went into the woods, and the witch let her roam. At first Sima felt no gratitude towards the witch, but a few weeks later she carried some of thosee feelings:. gGratitude, and happiness, and surprise. A bit of jealousy. “You set them free.”
The witch raised an eyebrow.
“I heard them,” the little girl continued. Scents: pepper, honey. Crimson fingers tapped a skirt. “They were in the market. Haggling. Old Wyman called for a town meeting and they all went to the square.”
She spoke of voice as if it was something miraculous. The witch, meanwhile, thought silence to be a miracle. “You went close to the village.”
“Why did you release them?”
It hadn’t seemed necessary to keep the voices of the village fathers. They played this game every few years: the old men governing the village grew sure of their own power, the witch took their voices, the witch gave them back, and the men used them to discuss hunting her down. The witch hated the men, who ripped into the woods like a snake shedding its skin, without any of the beauty or logic. But now the witch had the little beast. Suddenly Sima was the only one that mattered. The witch said none of this. “Did you speak with them?”
The girl smelled of horseradish, the scent expanding to fill the entire room. The witch was impressed by the power of it. She wondered if the little beast had any understanding of her own power.
“I didn’t talk with them,” the girl said. “I never do.”
The witch snorted.
“Why not?” the little beast demanded. “Who is it hurting if I talk with Jana or Maeve?”
It would hurt the beastly little girl. It would steal her freedom and keep her submerged in the lie that the village was where true life led. The beast would forget how to speak her mind and talk out of turn and turn back into Sima, the village girl whose name meant obedience and who followed the village fathers blindly.
“You can watch them,” the witch said. “I don’t see any harm in that.”
“But what’s the harm in talking with them?”
“If you can’t see that, then you’re clearly not ready.”
“How can I ever be ready! When you get to decide what ready means.”
“Look at you. You’d gore me, if you could.”
The girl didn’t respond.
“Little Boar,” said the witch. “With your little tusks, and little hooves.”
“I’m not a boar! I’m a woman! From the village! I’m a villager, and you can’t keep me away from them!”
Abruptly, the witch could no longer see the humor in the situation. “You’re not a woman. You’re just a girl. And you’re not from the village anymore.”
The boar-girl stormed off, but didn’t fight. The witch considered the discussion closed and thought the little boar would keep herself to the shadows and watch her old friends, but a few days later the girl went into the woods and returned after a few hours with unfamiliar scents clinging to her.
“I know what you did,” the witch said, not playing any games.
The girl went to her knees, bracing herself for a blow. The witch hissed with displeasure. “Get up. I’m never going to lay a hand on you. I’m not like your father.”
“But, I… I disobeyed you.”
“And can I stop you? Can anyone stop you from doing what you wish? Your foolish actions hurt you, Little Boar. The more you talk with them, the more you belong to them.”
“I don’t belong to them,” the girl said. “But they’re my friends. I love them.”
How to explain? How did the witch explain that every time, it went the same way? These little girls, unbreakable for a time, slowly convinced that their lives only had meaning when they lived for the husbands and fathers. “You’ll feel your friends changing,” the witch warned. “They’ll try to change you, too. Don’t let them.” The girl didn’t understand; the witch could tell. But sooner or later, she would. She’d understand that the witch was saving her.
Saving? Who do I think I am? Some fairie? Some angel? Something not a witch?
The girl cleaned the cauldrons, drew water from the well, ran her little hands over the witch’s few leather-bound tomes as if she hadn’t dreamed of reading her father’s few books when she still lived in the village. The witch watched the receding edge of the woods, gathered mushrooms and moss, read the books, experimented with potions. Sometimes the witch offered to teach the little boar to read, but Sima didn’t want the witch’s help. When she noticed the witch watching her, she slammed the books down and acted as if she’d never eavesdropped on the boys learning in the village green, though she’d been beaten several times after getting caught. The witch didn’t push to be the little boar’s teacher. She gave the girl independence and waited for any sign of magical ability to show itself. Years passed and there was nothing. It was disappointing. It made the witch feel strangely lonely. I have been alone for decades, she reminded herself. I do not need another witch to keep me company.
They spent supper together every night, slapping mosquitoes and shivering against the cold, wet hair in spring and windblown hair in autumn. Sometimes they talked. Sometimes they were silent. The witch did not grow any older. The girl’s silhouette did not grow any larger. Her voice did not lose its youthful pipe.
One night: “Jana’s gone.”
“She’s dead, then?” the witch replied. “It always takes less time than you’d think.” Better if the old friends were dead—then the girl would stop wasting her time thinking about the village.
“Not dead. Married. Maeve said that she’s married. It’s so strange to think of Jana being married—she’s younger than me.”
“And now she’s a wife. And then she’ll die.”
“You’re so cruel,” the little boar burst out. “You keep acting as if I’m not one of them! But I was supposed to be! Before you took me away!”
Took? How had the girl gone this long without realizing all that she had been rescued from? Jana, that nothing, she would live and die in the muck of the village, never learning to read, to write, to speak her mind on anything! How was the girl still convinced that the village life was something she had left behind? “You’re a fool, Little Boar,” the witch said with a voice of ice.
“What’s so foolish about wanting a family? Children? Friends?”
“If you don’t understand that yet—”
“I wish you’d stop saying things like that!”
“I wish you’d start understanding.”
“When can I leave?” the little girl finally blurted out, gold flowing from her fingers and eyes. She smelled like a fresh beehive in summer, sweet and dripping with honey and buzzing with life. The wish filled her pores and expanded through the room and the witch thought, maybe, maybe this wish is what will make her magical like me.
“You know what you said,” the witch answered. “You said, forever. So wait a forever.”
The green of envy for the other village children. The rainy smell of questions. Peppery anger, wood-smoke grief. The silver secret. The golden wish.
“How long have you lived?” the little girl asked.
She didn’t seem so angry anymore. She’d dried up like a creek in summer.
“Longer than the oldest village father,” the witch said. “Longer than the village.”
“Than the village? What was it like back then?”
“Forest. And forest. As wide as the sea. Have you ever seen the sea?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Jana never will. Maeve never will. You could, if you wanted.”
The girl shrugged. “It’s beautiful,” the witch tempted. “Endless blue, rolling slowly. Fish like gems. And the sand between your toes.”
It took a few moments for the witch to realize that the girl was crying. Tears, sadness, were ocean blue. The sound of her sobbing was wrenching, disturbing. The witch hadn’t cried since she became a witch herself. What possible reason could she have? She’d given up all the filthy parts of life and ascended to something else. And then the forest had been disturbed. Then the humans had moved in. Then the forest had receded.
“I can’t remember how old I am!” the girl wept.
The witch was silent. Somewhere in her stomach, she felt a tug.
“I don’t remember, either,” she finally said. Matter-of-fact. It was a matter of fact, nothing more. But now it felt like more. Now it felt like a loss. How long since the witch had thought of her age? How long since she had thought of her family?
The little girl began to hiccup, trying to force out her ultramarine questions. “H-how…”
The witch waited.
“…why are you here?”
The witch gave a half-smile.
“I met a witch.”
Now they were logging in the woods. They were turning their little shacks into houses, with wood floors and second stories. They ripped up the grass on the village green to build a schoolhouse for the boys, though they still banned the girls from reading. The witch watched with pride as Sima slowly taught herself letters and words. How could she not be grateful to be in a place where that was allowed? All the village fathers could do was demand and steal.
“It feels like forever,” the little beast said as they bound herbs in the small kitchen.
It had been nowhere near forever. It had been barely a generation. But perhaps the girl was ready to go out on her own. Maybe she had learned that she was better than the village. “What will you do when this forever is over?”
“Maybe I’ll go to the sea,” said the girl.
“You’ll love the sea.”
“And then I’ll go back home.”
“To the village.”
The witch gripped her twine so tightly that it snapped, letting the thyme scatter over the table and ground. She still thought of her village as home? The witch knew that her face was still human, but she was shocked that her form was not filled with the scarlet, peppery anger. How could she still hold onto that idea? How was it that after years and years she remembered the village fondly? When her friends died in childbed, and of sickness, and starvation? Of drinking dirty water? When her friends died after doing nothing with their lives and never going further than a mile from where they were born?
“It won’t be soon,” the witch said.
“I never thought that it would!”
“You forget, Little Boar—I can see what you feel. What you wish. Every bit of it, it’s written all over your skin. I can smell it. It’s rank.”
Instead of fear, disgust colored the girl’s forehead. A feeling of violation, betrayal. It was almost enough to make the witch concede. That village would have violated this girl and the witch had sworn long ago that she’d never be like that.
But then the girl’s disgust was subsumed by anger. “It’s not fair!”
“I won our game, Little Boar.”
“But you didn’t! Even I didn’t know what I wanted!”
“That’s not how it works,” the witch said. “We made a deal. We played a game. If I could guess your deepest desire, then you lose.” You win. “You stay.” You escape. “And I guessed.”
“I didn’t know! When I looked into the scrying bowl I thought I’d see me! And Jana! And Maeve! And our children, living together in the village, and growing old, and—”
“And never learning to read?”
“But that’s what your desire was,” the witch hissed. “You looked into the scrying bowl and you yourself as the teacher. Not just learning like your brothers, no—a teacher! Like one of the village fathers! No, your desire was to learn, and to be powerful! And I guessed it. And I was right, and you were wrong.”
“But I! Didn’t! Know!”
The girl slammed her hands against the table. The movement was that of a small, whiny child, and as the witch saw the little boar’s tiny, girlish form, trapped in the body that she’d first come to the witch in, the witch wondered for the first time if her mind hadn’t stayed stunted along with her body. If, perhaps, she hadn’t grown old in her body because she’d refused to grow old in her mind. If rescuing her from the village, and offering her her greatest desire, hadn’t been a curse after all.
But it was too late now! They had made their bargain, and the girl had pledge to stay here forever! The witch had taken her for a reason, and she’d be damned if she didn’t see the girl move past her obsession with the village and become the great, learned woman that she desired to be those years ago. The witch was from a village just like Sima’s. The witch had been told she would never amount to anything more than a womb to carry the next sons, a link from one generation of men to the next. She’d had the curiosity beaten from her, again and again. She’d had the intelligence beaten out of her. She’d had the will beaten out of her. Except for the merest bit, the tiniest fossil, the tiniest crystal of power somewhere deep inside. And the witch had run away with that power, and met a woman more powerful and beautiful than she ever could have imagined, and the witch had learned how to grow into her own power and immortality and do whatever she wanted.
And now she was being slowly battered into submission once more by a tiny little girl! Why couldn’t Sima just acquiesce? Why wouldn’t the little boar just admit that they were the same, and let herself follow their shared dream?
“You said forever, and I agreed, Little Boar!”
“You didn’t tell me what it meant! Forever isn’t what I thought it was!”
“Isn’t that your fault, little beast? Forever is one of the only words that means exactly what it says! For ever. Don’t blame me because you didn’t think.”
Something in the girl’s eyes shattered.
“I hate you.”
The girl stalked off.
Sima made herself scarce around the old cottage for the next several weeks. The witch didn’t try to approach her. When they finally spoke it was the girl that broke the silence. “You always call me a beast. Well, beasts don’t know things the same way that you do. So it wasn’t fair. It was a false pretense.”
“Listen to you, quoting books. You’d never have been able to—”
“Jana’s granddaughter died,” the girl interrupted. “I saw them bury her a few… months, I think, ago, but I don’t know. And that’s not fair.”
“You are not Jana’s granddaughter—”
“I should be. I was born one of them. I’m from them. And I should have died like them. Like Jana, and Maeve, a long time ago.”
“But you didn’t. Here you are, still a little girl.”
“I’m a woman. I had my courses, before all of this. I’m not a little girl of air and water, I am a woman of earth and fire, and I would have been a wonderful mother and wife.”
“Having your courses doesn’t stop you from being a child. Have you spent the last decades dreaming of a chevalier, who would sing you songs in the moonlight and ride for you on a white horse? Did you think your husband would be a handsome prince, and not some pig-keeper from your village twenty years older than you who you would have to learn to lie under? Did you think that having children would not hurt? Would not kill you? It always kills you, somehow. You always die.”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
“I can smell you lying. It terrifies you. Dying without ever doing anything! Dying like Jana, and like her daughter, and granddaughter.”
“I’d rather die than live this kind of life!”
“But I can smell how uncertain you are.”
“You just understand everything, don’t you? You just know all the secrets of the world!”
“I don’t claim to know everything. But I know enough. And I know more than you.”
“Because you’re old—”
“Because I tried to learn. When I saw the opportunity, I took it.” For the first time the witch reached out her hands and grasped the girl’s face. She ran her fingers over the features, trying to map out a face. “Just like you. Like you. I listened, and they beat me. I learned, and they beat me. So I left, and I taught myself, and I grew into the person I was meant to be. And I gained so much.” The little boar’s sharp nose and thick eyebrows, her plump chapped lips and the slightest bit of baby fat still hanging to her cheeks. Her ears, her lashes, her hairline. Sima exploded again, with the scents of anger, of offense, of a certain kind of violation. The witch dropped her hands as soon as she smelled it. “Maybe I was wrong,” she said. “Maybe you and I were never the same.”
“I don’t understand why you thought we were. You’re a witch. You’re evil. You’re barely human! Do you remember what it meant to love? Do you remember what it meant to feel? You can’t see me! All of the colors you talk about—could you even understand what I mean when I tell you my eyes are brown?”
Browns of hopelessness, melancholy, renewal. Browns of curiosity and wistfulness. Each color with its scent. “You played the game,” the witch said. “You came to me. You were brave, then. That’s how I knew.”
“I didn’t understand,” the girl said, “that I would watch people die and never age with them. That I’ll watch the stars die, and still be alive, and it’ll just be me and you alone in the world.” She spat on the ground.
The witch thought of her predecessor, the house she had lived in for innumerable years. A light. She recalled the colors of the world, before all she could see was starbursts of emotion. She remembered an age. A name. “Then leave.”
The girl’s eyes widened. The metallic tang of shock hit the room like vomit. “Leave,” the witch repeated. “I tried—”
To what? To help her? To love her? If she’d tried, she’d failed. The feeling of care, of hope, had been so novel that the witch had thrown herself into this girl for decades. And the feeling of grief and rage and shame at her failure was new, too. She hated it. She hated every bit of it. She never wanted to feel the emotions again. She never wanted to smell the emotions again or see their colors filling up a silhouette. She wanted to be blind. She wanted to be human. But, no—she would never be a human woman in this world. The witch knew that the rest of the world saw her as a vessel. Sima thought otherwise. She was probably wrong. She was usually wrong.
And now the witch would just send her out into the world? On her own? To be torn apart, and beaten down?
“I’m going to visit Jana’s grave,” Sima snarled. “And I’m never, ever coming back.”
The witch set fire to the cottage.
Some oil. A fire spell. The cottage crackled and burned. Timbers came down. As explosions started, the witch imagined her potions shattering into the fire. She was empty-handed. She felt clean.
She didn’t know why she hadn’t burned everything earlier. There were too many intrusions, too many humans, too much noise, too little space. She should have taken Sima and left a long time ago.
She chose not to focus on the missing colors.
What had Sima really looked like?
The witch took one last look at the woods, closed her eyes, and let herself fly.
One day a little girl smirked at the witch. Fear was completely absent from her colors. The witch could appreciate that.
There were mountains. A new house. New rivers to dip her hands into, and new plants to study. There were no more potions. There was no more flying. There were still no people, only colors and smells, but they were less oppressive than they had been. The witch was not clean, and she never would be, but she was trying. And now a new little girl, who had climbed the mountains to the little house to make a little bargain.
“You want to stay here?” the witch asked in disbelief.
“I want you to teach me.”
Indigo. Garnet. The smell of rain, of crisp apples in fall. Flashes of gold. A world of color and smell that the witch hadn’t been close to for… a long time.
“Why?” the witch asked.
Now the fear shot through the girl in front of her, along with anger and bitterness. The witch had been like that too, once upon a time. “I want to be strong,” the girl answered.
“What’s your name?”
“Don’t play games with me,” the witch said. “No type of game. You don’t want this.” Her throat felt swollen. She hadn’t cried for so long. She didn’t think she could remember how. But this new little girl reminded the witch of someone.
“I know what I want,” the little girl said. “I need to know what you know.”
“You don’t know anything,” the witch said again, cutting her off. “But. Maybe I can teach you a little of what I know. Not everything. But maybe I can teach you until we both know enough.”
Copyright 2020 by Maya Levine