“Who are you?”
The woman smiled at the wall of her cottage. The voice was young and female, but it didn't quaver in fear. Yet. “Who have they told you I am?” She asked the child behind her.
The sound of shifting cotton told her the girl had shuffled in place, probably nervous, regretting her rashness in coming so far into the forest without friends or a plan. “They told me you are a very bad lady who likes to steal children and kill their parents. That you live in a cottage deep in the woods and lure children there in order to turn them into slaves and demons that you make do your mali... malic-” the child stopped and tried again, “malicious bidding.” A pause. “They also told me that you don't exist.”
“Yet here I am,” the woman turned at last and reveled in the child's gasp of fear. “Oh now, did they forget to tell you about my appearance? Rather careless of them, I should think. Quite honestly, I thought how I look would be very useful as a way to keep the easily disgusted away from here.”
“They said,” the little girl swallowed before beginning again. “They said you had no eyes.”
The woman smiled without mirth, more a snarl than a grin. “And so I haven't. But answer me, child: did they tell you they themselves burned them out? Your village's grandparents and their hot pokers made of iron.”
“Well, child? Did they tell you that I saved three children and destroyed their parents to keep them safe? Were you told of how your people came the next night, held me down as they burned away my eyes after they beat the children to death? They claimed they'd been tainted by my evil influence: become demons, no longer fit to live? Did they tell you the eldest was but nine and the youngest barely three years of age?”
The child inhaled sharp as a knife flint. “No,” was all she said.
She'd been the local healer then. The villagers had wondered at her insistence on washing wounds and using fire to sterilize her needles before she stitched their torn flesh back together, but as long as she took away fevers and kept infection at bay, they let her and her cottage full of plants be.
By all rights, living as deep in the woods as she did, she should never have known the children.
One night, the eldest knocked on the door of her cottage, his sister's arm hung at a grotesque angle and the youngest had a bruise on its leg. All three looked as if they ate but once a week. “Please,” he'd begged.
She set the girl's arm and fashioned a sling. As she slathered vinegar on the smallest one's leg, the older boy asked, “Will that help?”
“It fades the bruises faster than letting it alone,” she'd explained.
The boy nodded, “Could you help mine?” and took off his sweater to reveal a torso covered in so many bruises it seemed as if he'd been painted in angry reds and purples, sickly greens and yellows.
Swallowing her nausea, the woman tended the abused flesh with her gentlest touch, begging for an explanation she already knew.
After much hemming and hawing, the sister answered in her brother's stead. “Mommy broke my arm and kicked the baby. Daddy beats him.”
Now it was rage that had to be swallowed. “Stay,” the woman choked out through a throat tight with tears and anger. “Stay here. Don't go back; it's not safe.” She turned to the eldest, “You're brave and strong and I doubt you're yet ten. You take the blows meant for all of you. Yet you can see it's not enough anymore,” she gestured to the others' injuries. “Stay here. We'll keep them safe together.”
He was swayed by her promises and sincerity.
She didn't know then her promises would be ash within a week.
The parents came first, of course. The woman hid the children in the cottage, playing dumb at knowing where they were. When the father raised his ax as if he meant to turn the whole building to kindling with the children inside, a shrill series of whistles brought the nearby wolf pack. It had been a hard winter and the wolves were glad of such a nice meal as the two stout, screaming people provided.
The woman went inside to make sure the children didn't see what was to happen to their parents. They were never to experience violence again, she swore.
It took only three days before the villagers came. The day had dawned bright and clear. She'd been making a pie crust as the children washed berries when shouts shocked the birds from their trees.
If they'd had any mercy, they'd have taken her eyes first. Instead they held her back and made her watch until the little dears she already loved were nothing but a mess of blood and hair. By the time the irons were in her eyes, she had no screams left.
She begged for death, to be allowed to join her children. The villagers laughed and left her there, bleeding into the ground, unable to even cry for the bones being picked clean by crows.
When her grief didn't kill her, it twisted her into anger. The first villager who came complaining of a headache was given nightshade to put in her tea. The man who sawed off a finger lost his entire arm to the infection she helped cultivate in the wound. Soon enough the visits stopped, the way they spoke about her changed.
Instead of Healer, they called her Witch.
“So, these people, your people,” the woman waved a hand, “they lie to you and try to scare obedience out of you with stories of the cruel Witch of the Woods. Is that right?”
“I suppose,” the child said after a thoughtful pause.
The woman put a finger to her lips and tapped them. “So, if I am to be feared, if I do not, in fact, exist, what brings you so deep into the unforgiving woods?”
The little girl shifted again, her shoes squeaking as she took two steps forward into the cottage, the door creaking shut behind her. “What color were your eyes? When you had them?”
Startled at such a question, the woman lost her smile. Her first thought was to lie, invent all manner of horrors, but the girl had been lied to all her life. No reason to add to the score of misinformation already a part of the Woods Witch and her myth. “Green. A rather fetching pale green, if I do say so myself. Though it's been thirty years since I last saw them in a mirrored glass; I may just be romanticizing.”
“My eyes are blue. Just a dull blue,” the girl said. A small hand touched the woman's. Wet, likely from the river that led to the hidden house. “I'm sorry that happened to you and the kids you saved. The people who did that to you were very bad. Far worse than anything they said... made up about you.”
There were no clever words that came to mind and the woman had been alone long enough to think of all the clever things she could ever say should something like this happen. Although nothing about this encounter went the way she had ever imagined it might go. The girl didn't scream in fright and run away, ready to lead the villagers to the cottage. She hadn't started crying or whimpering, nor had she called the woman a witch, despite the fact that could be the only title she had known before stepping in the cottage. In fact, the little girl was thoughtful, even... kind. “Thank you.”
The little girl wrapped her fingers with the woman's. “May I ask you something, ma'am?”
A true smile curled the woman's lips slightly upward at the honorific. “You may, little one.”
“After you saved those kids, what were you going to do with them? If the people from the village hadn't done what they'd done. I don't think you would've turned 'em into demons anymore, but what would you have done?”
The woman sighed, her heart heavy with the weight of a future she didn't have, a past of love taken from her too soon. “Teach them to make medicine from the plants and how to befriend the forest animals. They were to live in this cottage with me and I would raise them as my own. I would have passed on my old twig and leaf dolls to the middle child, a girl of seven. About your age, I suppose. Once the eldest boy was a bit older, I'd have taught him to hunt. How to respect the animals and bless them for their sacrifice to keep us fed. The sweet, babbling baby was going to grow up remembering little of the previous injuries suffered at the hands of those both blessed and unworthy to be their parents.” The woman's lips quivered, though her broken tear ducts could no longer cry. “I had such marvelous stories I wanted to tell them.”
“Tell me. Please,” the girl said, part question and part statement.
“Your parents will consider you tainted. I don't want you to come to any harm, little one.”
The girl took the hand she still held and placed it on her own face. “That's not a problem.”
“Wet,” the woman said, “with tears? No,” she said before the child could answer. She lifted her hand, rubbing the liquid between her fingers. A metallic tang drifted in the air. “Blood. Yours? Are you injured?” Already the woman's mind raced as to what poultices she'd make to stem the bleeding, what herbs would numb any pain the child might be in.
“Daddy killed Mommy and my new baby sister still in her tummy, beat Mommy like the children's parents did. Until Mommy and the baby squirming in her stopped moving. I used the kitchen knife on him.” The child sighed. “It took a long time because I couldn't reach his heart or throat, so I had to keep stabbing him in the leg until he fell down and I could kill him like the butcher kills sheep for dinner. It was very messy. I wanted to clean my hands so I wouldn't get blood on your door though.”
“Didn't he yell for help?” The woman asked, shocked at the child's matter-of-fact telling.
A small giggle rose from the girl. “No one cared. He always yells when he's drunk. He always swears people are out to get him, to murder him in his sleep 'cause he had a lot of gold. They ignored him like usual.”
The woman took in this new information and nodded. “And you came here?”
The girl was quiet, then said, “I'm sorry, I was nodding. I forgot you couldn't see me. Yes, I put down the knife, kissed Mommy and my baby sister goodbye and followed the path into the woods.”
“But why? Why did you come here?”
“I wanted you to be real,” the child said. “I wanted you to steal me. I took care of the other part for you.”
A laugh came from deep within the woman and rang through the small cottage. “Child, what is your name?”
“Come Ramona,” the woman walked to the pitcher of water she used to bathe. “Clean your face like you washed your hands in the river. Then I will make us some dinner and tell you my stories before I put you to bed.”
The child's voice was smiling. “Yes, Mother.”