“You must take my brother,” said the girl, to the old woman. “I will leave, after, if you like. But you must take him from me.”
The young woman and the ancient one sat at opposite ends of the hearth, watching one another through the yellow darkness. The fire smelled sweetly of sugar and cinnamon, its scent the very trail that had lured the children to the house from the forest.
The boy slumbered in a bed in the attic. He would sleep through the night, for he had eaten well of the old woman’s pantry, and drunk deeply of the wine on her table.
“Safer than water,” the old woman had told him, honestly enough. “With such whispers of sickness and plague all about.”
Now the crone half-glanced at the boy’s sister across the fire, and held her silence.
“I know that you are a witch,” said the young woman, after a time. “My mother, that died, was one, also. I learned some things from her of the craft.”
The old woman neither moved, nor spoke.
Her manner was as the trees beyond the cottage, gnarled, and ancient, bitter from the abrasion of the Solstice winds, and of the loneliness that was the very shadow of her being.
A witch she was, and all the woods knew it.
“I have come far to look for you,” said the girl. “I left home in the night, with the boy. We have walked long, and rested little. You have been a most generous host, but it is not food and shelter that I have come for, only this boon, of which I have now spoken.”
Curiosity moved in the old woman’s face, a cunning tide. Her eyes were hunger, the savage beast-spirit of it— yet somehow the girl was hungrier still, though like the boy she had fed well on the crone’s offerings.
“He came willing, your brother,” the old woman said, plainly.
“Willing enough,” the girl replied. “I told him our father and stepmother meant to abandon us, that they could not afford to keep us through the famine. This was a lie: they loved us well, and would have given all they had that we may live.”
The crone’s dry lips coiled.
“Once, they would,” she sneered. “Not now.”
“No,” the girl agreed, softly. “Now they are only afraid, and likely glad to see us gone.”
At this the old woman took up a needle and thread so black that it seemed she sewed the night itself in her withered lap. She began to darn a bit of rag that had already been mended a hundred times, seeming to forget that she had company at all.
Then she said, jutting her chin at the ceiling, “Why did he not kill them, then, the parents he thought would leave him to die?”
“He could not find his way home without me,” said the girl. “Nor would he have thought to. His mind is still a child’s. He does not yet know what he is. But soon…”
Another pause came about, so that all that could be heard in the house was the crackling fire and the clotted snores from the boy above.
The old women knotted a bit of thread and licked the frayed tip of a second strand to slick its ease through the eye of the needle.
That done, she said, with the blunt speech of elders the world over, “Your mother lay with the Devil, then, for the child to be what he is.”
“No,” said the girl.
She was not bashful, nor offended by the question, only cold and grim, a woodcut in her carved austerity.
“How, then?” the crone persisted.
The girl withheld a bitter sigh. She might well have anticipated the old one would want the tale, and there was time yet for storytelling, this long night.
“One winter my brother fell sick,” she said. “I now believe that he died. My mother took him down into the cellar and remained there with him for three days. I heard things through the floor of which I cannot speak, and do not like to remember. My father was made half a fool with grief; I doubt that he sensed anything at all of what went on, nor much wanted to.”
The girl leant her head upon her knees, and suddenly she appeared far younger than she was, an infant in a grown up’s dress.
“Then, one morning, up the cellar steps my mother came,” she said, “leading the child by the hand. Yet it was not my brother she returned to us, but something else, in his skin.”
Setting her sewing aside the witch edged her chair closer to the hearth. As red light lapped the hollows of her jaw the bone gleamed through, as in the structure of leaves, frail and fine.
“She knew,” said the old woman. “Your mother. What she had done.”
“She died from the knowing of it,” said the girl. “Though my father said the cold ate of her, it was her guilt, her fear, her sorrow. For that she could not send him back, the child that she had made from the damp and the dark.”
The young woman opened her small hands before the fire, yet did not seem much warmed by it.
She brooded, her black eyes swallowing the very colour of the flame.
“You have seen for yourself what he is?” asked the crone. “You must be sure of it, to come here.”
“I have seen it,” said the girl. “I am certain. You saw it about him yourself before you even let us in the house.”
The snoring in the attic paused a moment, and both women, young and old, stiffened in their seats, eyes raised to the beams above. Only when the pattern of breathing resumed again did the girl dare speak, and softly, then, a mere murmur, no more.
“The boy,” she said. “He is like a child in some half-forgotten dream. His eyes— they are like looking into a mirror and seeing only the wood behind it, blank and dark. The famine began when my mother brought him up from the cellar, and all the animals my father kept birthed only dead things, afterwards, all twisted and deformed. The child is not yet cruel, but he is a danger, and will be more dangerous still, if he grows.”
Rocking gently in her chair the old woman appeared to think for a time.
“Why did you bring him to me?” she asked, suddenly. “Why not put an end him yourself?”
When the girl did not answer the old woman scoffed, and spat at the hearth.
“You love him, then, this usurper thing born in the bowels of your house.”
“I am afraid of him,” said the young woman.
“That is not what I asked.”
The girl snatched back her hands as though the fire had touched her.
Again she looked an infant, mewling for milk that had long gone to dust.
“So,” said the old witch. “I am to kill the boy because you cannot. Because your mother could not. She had the means, yet not the stomach to do it. But I— ah. Always the old cleans the shit of the young. It is the way of things. So it must be.”
She picked up her sewing again, holding it close to her eyes, which saw poorly, smoked silver with age.
“You know how it is done,” she said. “The killing.”
Smaller than ever the girl looked, then, yet strong she spoke, the conviction of grudging years drawn towards an inevitable end.
“There is a cage I have, of iron,” said the witch. “Tomorrow I will trap the boy there. You will act as though I have taken you as my slave, so that he does not know your part in it. You will feed him sweetmeats laced with blessed herbs till he grows fat, and slow, and stupid with powerlessness. Then the killing will come about, and you must help me.”
“Yes,” said the girl, and this time her voice was brittle with tears unshed, though she was no weaker for it.
“You will tell him you have bargained for his life,” said the crone. “That I would have him serve under me, as well. I will bid him stoke my oven for my dinner, then when he is bent low before it you must stand at my side, so that he will not suspect what I am about. Then I will force him inside it, and he will burn.”
“He will burn,” echoed the girl. “And he will die.”
The fire seemed to roil and slobber in anticipation of its gluttony.
The old woman said, “What will I have in return for my troubles?”
This the girl had been sure would come, for no witch could stand to be without pay for her toil.
“His bones will be worth something to you, in your spellwork,” said the young woman. “You may keep them for yourself. I have no want of them.”
“And where will you go, when our deal is played out?” the old one probed.
“I do not yet know.”
Something moved in the penumbra of the old woman’s eyes; admiration, perhaps, hard and wry.
“Are you not afraid of the forest?” she asked.
“Yes,” said the girl. “But when the child is dead it will be a fair haven in compare to what it was, before.”
She rose from her seat, bowed her head to the elder, and went up the rickety stairs to the attic. Within that room the little boy stirred and tripped forth through the darkness, black and formless his being within it.
“Sister,” he said, still thick with sleep. “Where have you been?”
“I fell asleep by the fire,” said the young woman. “Do not fret. I am here now. Go back to bed.”
The boy groped for her through the gloom, his small hands frigid, and it was all the girl could do not to shudder at his touch.
“Lie with me,” whispered the child. “I am lonely. I miss our mother.”
The girl did not ask which mother he meant. She went with him to the mattress and lay down upon it. Then, drawing the boy’s back against her belly she held him, and pretended for the last time that he was her brother, still.