There was a woman in our village who was mad, and had been for as long as anyone could remember. Agatha had come to us, mud-daubed, barefoot, stumbling out of the night, her own home set fire to by bandits, making dust of all that she had.
We took her in, accepting her strangeness, for we had each suffered hunger and the deaths of loved ones long enough to know the taste of grief ourselves, sour and grim.
Still, Agatha kept to herself, in her small house, and but for the trading of food and cloth we seldom saw her, thinking her content in her loneliness.
Then there came an afternoon between summer and the harvest season, low and buzzing with musky heat, that the madwoman was seen to stagger out from her hut into the forest, though what she was about no one knew.
She was gone for so many hours that some of us wondered if we should go looking for her to see that she was not lost, or else eaten up by some wandering beast.
Then, as darkness cloaked the trees like low mist, Agatha returned, holding in her thin arms what was thought, at first, to be some swaddled child, but was only the knotted stump of a small tree. She carried it back to her home and vanished there with it, perhaps thinking to stoke a fire against the creeping cold.
Yet Agatha was witnessed with the stump many times after, rocking it in her arms, or else setting it gently beside her as she worked at washing or other simple chores. We all shook our heads in pity, thinking that, perhaps, she had lost her own babe to the bandits years ago, and was in mourning.
When Agatha came into the village wanting milk from a wet nurse she was obliged, for there had been few children born that year, and if the play of feeding her false infant brought comfort then surely the surplus was not truly wasted.
And feed the log she did, dabbing milk into a hole bored through the wood until its surface ran white and shining with its spill. How she adored the thing, seeming to emerge from her addled state in response to its imagined need.
A child came always before the wants and pains of its mother, this Agatha seemed to understand.
Then, abruptly, she requested that all food and milk be brought to her cottage for her, and could not be made to say why. It was assumed that she merely desired to withdraw into the comforts of isolation again, and so with many a shrug her request was granted.
Agatha was pleased enough with this, it appeared, her face ruddy and warm-eyed as she accepted a covered basket through the window of her hut. She had found another log to replace the first, larger and broader of shape; thus, in her lunatic’s fancy, the child had grown, and we all made a point to praise it so that its mother might smile where once she had only grimaced.
Slowly, however, another change came upon the sequestered Agatha. She would keep her room darkened as she came to the window, taking her food quickly, only pausing, once, to ask that she have double her portions, should it be spared.
Being that much of her rations came from charity there was little more we could give, although by then Agatha was so thin and gaunt of looks that she well deserved it.
How this slenderness had come about nobody knew. She had no husband nor children to eat of her share, nor animals that might have fed upon it. It merely seemed that, although alone, no serving was enough to make hale her haggard form, and as all the flesh receded from her narrow face we who tended to Agatha became suspicious.
Was there some plague that she had caught, a wasting sickness, eating the fat from her until she was to fall down dead? Or had some villain skulked into the hut, unseen, holding the simple woman hostage unbeknownst to her caretakers?
Whatever the case, it could not be let alone. So it was a young man was sent to peep in at Agatha when she was not expecting visitors, a dagger at his belt lest he need to protect himself against some faceless outlaw.
Quietly the boy crept upon the cottage window and looked over its ledge, taking care that he kept well to the shadows. He was glad that he had gone there by daylight, for there was no fire nor so much as a single candle in the room to light it. Thanks to God the sun was high, or else what he saw might remain there, still, blight seething in the dark.
In that nursed gloom was Agatha, pale and withered as corpse flesh drawn back across a skull. She sat in a wicker chair, her flat breast bared. To the nipple she clutched the trunk of some impossible tree, its many boughs and branches smothering the room in their number, weaving thick as tapestry across the walls.
Some of these appendages had sunk into the scant meat of Agatha’s shoulders, binding her within a cage of feasting vegetation. The woman moaned, and brought a dessicated hand to her forehead in a mode of weak despair.
“No more,” she croaked. “I have no more for you, child. I am sorry.”
Then—the young man swore, his voice a-tremble—he observed the branches to shake themselves about in a fit of ire. From the midst of them a voice emerged with the thin malice of the wind.
That night Agatha’s cottage was burned, leaving nothing but soot and blackened kindle in its wake.
None can say who it was that saw it done, for we did not discuss it in so many words as to make it our plan. Perhaps some of our folk made it their duty, whether to prevent the spread of an unnatural scourge or put the ailing woman to rest I cannot tell.
Whoever the culprit, we all watched the hut, ablaze, and heard, upon the breeze, a childish wail, long, and rageful, and desolate.
But perhaps it was only a fox’s cry, for they often scream so, and are mistaken for our own.