by Joel Reeves
Egladine, the witch of the Old Northern Forest, squinted through pale blue eyes at the large black tome opened on the oaken table. Like all witches, she had green skin, a wart on her cheek, a tuft of hair sprouting from her chin, a pointed hat, and of course, a large bubbling iron cauldron. Besides all this, she was prone to cackling.
But, despite her very conventional appearance, unlike her sisters Egladine had no interest in spending her time casting spells to turn princes into toads and poisoning maidens fairer than herself with tainted apples.
Her specialty was children. Not eating them like her cannibalistic cousin who worked so many years out of that gingerbread house of horrors, luring the innocent in with candy canes and gum drops and then fattening them up for dinner. Not Egladine. She used her magic and years of training to create children for parents who could have none of their own.
Exactly why she had chosen this as her avocation remained a mystery to all those in the sisterhood of witches. Those closest to her suspected that it was because she had never known the love of parents of her own. In any case, she had lived a solitary and unconventional life, preferring not to join a witches’ community for support, not even participating in a single coven in the past twenty years.
She was a loner, though whether or not she was lonesome, none could say. She did have the company of Midnight, her black cat familiar. And as she worked to get the ingredients just right for her next girl child—a combination of sugar, spice, and everything nice—the mischievous animal jumped from the table onto the hearth, knocking a pouch filled with crushed ingredients into the concoction bubbling up from the pot.
Absorbed in the details of her invocation spell, Egladine never noticed that the brew had been contaminated. She went right on working, stirring in all sorts of sweet components to make some lucky couple a very delightful female child. Of course, she had made her share of little boys in the past, but just now her supply of snails and puppy dog tails was running low, and being an animal lover, she only took canine tails that came her way as a result of accidental dismemberments.
After an hour or so, she stuck in a large wooden ladle and tasted the potion. Her brow wrinkled. Something, she decided, did not taste quite right. But by this point it was too late to turn back. The liquid was already beginning to congeal.
She lifted the cauldron off the flame and rushed through the door of the hut, setting the iron pot on the cold earth to cool. Midnight dashed out behind her, the door slamming shut, barely missing his tail. The cat squatted next to the cauldron, sniffing at the air, as Egladine reached inside and pulled out a small squirming infant, its skin wrinkled and red.
“Oh dear,” Egladine fretted, examining the child. “This baby is very plain.”
Indeed, the baby’s hair was a dirty blonde, almost brown and its gray eyes were not the usual twinkling blue that human parents preferred. Nevertheless, Egladine placed it carefully in a basket and wrapped it in a sheepskin blanket.
She carried the baby in its basket out of the forest, and when night fell, hurried across the field, and placed the basket at the back door of a ranch style house with walkout basement. She then disappeared back into the night, her cat fast at her heels.
Almost from the beginning, Tom and Mary Merkel knew their daughter was not quite like the other girls her age. In fact, she was downright odd. She played with the Barbie and Ken dolls they bought for her birthday, but not in the normal way that other girls did. Instead of seating them at the kitchen table in her little dollhouse, she took them outside to the stream that ran through the ditches along the country road and did something awful—an act so terrible that Mary had a hard time telling her husband about it.
“I followed her, Tom,” she admitted, fighting back tears. “I didn’t feel right, spying on my own daughter, but if I hadn’t we might never have known the truth.”
Tom chewed his breakfast sausage and then began cutting his pancake into small triangles with knife and fork. “You have a tendency to exaggerate. What could she have done that was so bad?”
Mary glared at her husband, offended. “I’ll tell you what she did. She pulled off all their heads and floated them down the stream,” she cried, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Tom stopped chewing, almost choking at the news. “That is a little strange,” he whispered, surprised. “I used to float things down the river when I was young, too. Bobbers and little boats. I guess kids are different these days.”
“Oh, Tom,” she lamented. “What could have caused this to happen? We’re good parents, aren’t we?”
Tom held her tight trying to still her shaking body, trying to come to grips with the dirty family secret she had revealed in all its graphic detail. He mustered his strength. It wouldn’t help for everyone to fall apart. Their little mixed up girl needed her parents now more than ever.
“Is this true, young lady? Did you really pull the heads off those dolls?”
Lydia picked up a link of sausage in her white little hand. The fingernails were painted the colors of some foreign country. It was her most recent obsession. She had been memorizing all the world’s nations for about a month and studying foreign languages. She was becoming quite fluent in Spanish and German.
She took a bite out of the sausage, chewing it with satisfaction. “I did, Daddy. I was sick of listening to Barbie and Ken fight about who was more beautiful, so I told them I would take them sailing.”
Mary shook her head with disapproval. “Your behavior is not normal,” she scolded. “What other girls your age do that to their favorite dolls?”
Lydia frowned, annoyed. “I told you,” she protested. “I don’t like dolls.”
“Why?” Her father stared at her, his hard eyes puzzled, almost scared.
Lydia sighed and picked up a chunk of her scrambled eggs with her fingers and popped it into her mouth. “They remind me of the popular girls at school,” she announced. “All pretty and plastic and fake. They all look the same.”
Her father raised his eyebrows, thinking, then finally said: “Don’t eat with your fingers. It’s uncouth. You’ll never get a husband.”
Lydia jumped up from the table, delighted. “I don’t want a husband,” she said. “Not a typical one anyway.”
Mary eyed her daughter, the corners of her mouth turned down. “Don’t you like boys?” she asked, horrified. “Many of the girls your age already have boyfriends.”
“I have a friend who is a boy,” Lydia reminded them. “His name is Jack and he plays the clarinet and he hardly ever talks but he’s a good listener. I told him one of my secrets and he never told any of the other kids so I know I can trust him.”
Her father stared at her, nervous. “What secret did you tell this friend of yours?”
Lydia smiled, her upper lip twitching with mischief. “I told him that I want to be a zookeeper when I grow up. I told him you and mother, if you were still alive by then, could help clean out the cages.”
Tom and Mary rolled their eyes in dismay. “Now, dear,” her mother reasoned, “it’s good to have dreams, but a zoo? Really.”
“Oh, yes,” Lydia blurted, excited at even this small amount of acknowledgement. “I’m going to have all kinds of unusual animals in it eventually. And I’m going to have a hotel built for the people who come from far away to visit my zoo to stay in. I might even have a restaurant built that is all decorated in animal wallpaper with animal statues and animal crackers for the children.”
She suddenly stopped talking. Her parents eyes had glazed over and they had those flat expressions that they always got whenever she started to talk about her passions, or as they called them, her obsessions.
“I have made an appointment with Dr. Conrady,” Mary interjected, her forehead creased with lines of worry.
Tom Merkel stared at his wife, troubled. “I don’t know, Mary. It seems a little extreme.”
Mary glared at him, furious. “I know what’s best for my daughter. She needs professional help. If this continues, she’s going to grow up to be an unhappy adult.”
“Hmm,” her father mused. “She seems pretty happy to me. More happy than either of us most of the time anyway.”
Lydia’s mother pushed a strand of hair out of the girl’s face. “You understand my concern, don’t you dear? You know why I want you to get therapy.”
Lydia’s blue eyes twinkled with mischief. “Estoy muy loco.”
Her mother’s eyes grew wide in shock. “What did you say?”
“Ich bin serh verrückt,” Lydia blurted gleefully with a strong German accent. “That means I’m very crazy in two languages.”
“Oh.” Her mother grunted. “It’s nice to know I have a bilingual child.”
“Sorry, mother,” Lydia replied. “It’s just that one day I want to travel the world. I want to see the pyramids, and Stonehenge, and the Bavarian Alps, and the running of the bulls in Spain. I figure learning all of these languages will help me understand the locals.”
Mary rolled her eyes. “Just go to Disneyland like any other kid your age. You won’t have to worry about the locals. Mickey and Donald both speak fluent English.”
Lydia gazed out the glass patio doors. She stood up suddenly, her parents watching as she slid aside the doors. A cool breeze blew inside. Mary shivered.
“Please shut the doors,” Mary ordered. “It’s cold outside.”
“I’m bored,” Lydia replied. “I’m going to shoot my bow.”
They watched her through the window for a very long time.
The wooden bow had been handed down from Lydia’s grandfather. It was a highly polished handcrafted weapon that he’d purchased in Africa, not one of the cheap plastic ones available in most stores. He had used it to hunt deer and would have been surprised to learn that his granddaughter had taken up his passion for archery.
Lydia fitted one of the metal arrows into her bow. She pulled back on the string so that her hand was even with her right eye, and released. She loved everything about archery. The way the bowstring felt in her hand. Finding within her the strength to draw it back. The noise of the ping as it was released, and best of all, the flight of the arrow itself.
She watched the arrow arc across the gray sky and land in the field of alfalfa and mustard plants two hundred yards away. She fired off her other five arrows, watching them land, each within a few feet of one another. She walked across the field, pulling the arrows out of the soft black earth.
Lydia looked up to see a black cat sitting on the grass a few feet away, peering up at her. The cat suddenly jumped up and ran across the field, disappearing into the Old Forest. Lydia was not allowed to go into the Old Forest. Her mother had forbidden it, saying that wolves and bears and all sorts of dangerous creatures prowled the wood, waiting to prey upon anyone foolish enough to leave the safety of the familiar hay fields and fenced-in meadows.
Someday, before she left this little town and went off to live in Spain or Germany, Lydia would venture into the Old Forest. The thought of going into a forbidden place excited her sense of wonder.
“Lydia!” It was her mom calling.
She would have to postpone her adventure for now. It was time to eat or time to sleep or time to do some awful chore or to hear why she wasn’t behaving properly like other girls her age. She loved her parents, but sometimes they just didn’t seem to understand that she wanted something different out of life than most girls her age.
She wanted to explore and she didn’t care if she got dirty. She longed to learn new languages and meet people who were very different from the kind she had met so far in this small town. She wanted to eat exotic foods and shoot her bow in a real Olympic archery tournament.
Lydia tried to tell them one time about these dreams of hers. But her mother only frowned and shook her head and tried to convince her that she should make herself pretty and try to meet more boys. Mrs. Merkel was convinced that despite her daughter’s peculiarities, there was bound to be a Mister Right out there for her somewhere. And her father, well, he smiled that understanding smile of his, and chuckled softly, probably supposing she would get over her silly notions when she turned eighteen and saw the necessity of getting a good job and earn a decent wage.
The years passed. The gap that Lydia felt between herself and her parents grew into a chasm. The therapy had not helped as her mother had hoped. Lydia had chosen to stay home from the prom in her senior year. Jack remained her closest friend, and though she had crushes on several others, none seemed to share her passion for foreign countries or travel. They seemed content with living their lives in the little town, safe and comfortable, following fast in the footsteps of their parents.
One night, toward the end of her senior year, Lydia sat by her open window, reading a book about China. She marveled at the pictures of the Great Wall and thought about what it would be like to visit the Forbidden City in Beijing.
She fell asleep with the warm breeze on her face, the smell of trees, and decaying leaves filling her nostrils. She dreamed a dream that she had dreamed many times: An old woman dressed in rags, clutching to a broomstick with both hands, a baby wrapped tight, one squirming pink leg poking through the cloth. The two of them—the old woman and the baby—swooping, and dipping, and finally plunging through the night sky. Down, down, pulling up and drifting down as their destination—a ranch style house with a walkout basement—came into view.
The old woman wrapped the baby more tightly, only its tiny face peeking out, and laid it carefully, very carefully on the back step. She knocked and listened for the sound of footsteps. Then she was off, shooting straight upward like an arrow, and away, into the night.
“Here she comes,” the old woman whispered. “A mother without a child. Your new family.”
A warm rain started outside, the droplets splashing against the sill of the window, a few splattering against Lydia’s oval face, rolling down her cheeks, waking her, and rolling down the peeling siding of the old house. Lydia woke and started to cry. For the first time in eighteen years, she suddenly felt her differentness. It made her feel lonely and her heart ached.
She peered out into the darkness, out beyond the field where she shot her bow and dreamed her dreams since she was a very little girl. The place where she had sat so often wiggling her ugly stubby toes in the green grass wondering why she was so different from her parents and her classmates. Everybody. Only Jack seemed to connect with any of her strange aspirations, or maybe he was just being polite.
The answer was in the Old Forest. She didn’t know how she knew this, how she had always known. She slipped out of the house with only a light wind breaker. It was not cold, just wet, and she didn’t mind the rain, was hardly even aware of the soft drops against her skin as she ran across the field, toward the light.
She felt the cat at her feet pushing its head into her shin. Lydia jumped, startled. But it was just a cat, probably a stray. It peered up at her and she remembered, several years ago, a cat looking just like this one. It had tried to get her to go with it then. She couldn’t, not then. It was time to eat or something.
This time she ran after it when it trotted deeper into the forest. The branches slapped at her face as she ran, making her close her eyes, and for a few moments she thought she had lost the cat.
But then she came to a clearing. There was a hovel with a fire inside.
Lydia pushed open the door. An old woman, turned, startled, peering at her where she stood in the doorway. The cat curled on a hearth over a stone fireplace. A cauldron bubbled and boiled and a bitter smell floated in the stale air.
“Hello, Lydia,” the old woman said, closing the large tome on the table in front of her. “I think I know why you are here.”
Lydia stared at her, surprised. “You do?”
Somehow this was relieving. Lydia had known she would come to this place, even when she was very little, but now that she had arrived, the reason for her coming was not altogether clear to her anymore.
“You’re tired of being different,” Egladine said. “That’s understandable. Children… young people… do not like to stand out from the crowd. It’s awkward. But you’ll change your mind. When you’re older. What other people think of you won’t seem nearly so important.”
“I don’t want to wait. It’s lonely,” Lydia said. “I want to be what my parents want me to be. I’m tired of disappointing them. Help me. Please.”
Egladine smiled, plucked a spider from a web stretched between the hearth and table, and flicked it into the caldron. The arachnid made a fizzle, barely discernible, but enough to change the concoction inside just a little.
“I can’t undo you,” Egladine said. “Even if I thought that might make your parents happy. Not even to take away your sadness.”
Lydia lowered her head. She lifted it again and walked over to the cauldron, watched the potion inside boil and bubble. She studied the bottles and vials and pouches filled with all manner of roots, and dried insects, and some things she couldn’t identify.
Her eyes settled on a broom mounted on the wall. Lydia took a few steps closer, gazing at the broom in wonder. She found herself inches from it, drawn to it. She sniffed the wood. It smelled of rain and snow and black, locust-filled clouds, and summer sunshine. The straw had fallen out in places leaving bare patches. The handle was weather-faded and cracked in places. There were two smooth grooves near the top end where the witch’s hands must have grasped and sweated and trembled as the broom dived and swirled and climbed through the cold blackness of October skies. Year after year.
Travel tags tied to the ancient wooden handle with the thread of spider web hung down from the broom: One marked Germany, another Spain, a third, Russia. There was a tag in the shape of a four leafed clover marked Ireland, another with a picture of a llama representing Peru. The familiar Eiffel Tower of France decorated another, a long red dragon China, the Rising Sun, Japan.
Lydia flipped through the tags, one after another, her eyes blinking in stunned amazement, her hands quivering in excitement.
“There must be hundreds of them,” she whispered, awestruck. “You’ve been everywhere in the world in your lifetime.”
Egladine laughed. “Almost everywhere. I haven’t been to Burundi, but I’m going soon.” She glanced at the cauldron where a small shape was forming in the bubbling concoction. “I have a delivery to make.”
The old woman lifted the pot, her thin bony arms straining under the weight, and carried it out of the hut and sat it down on the cold black earth. After a few moments, she reached inside and lifted it out—a little girl. She dried the child and wrapped the tiny little girl inside a sheep skin blanket, hugging it to her, eyes filled with tears.
Lydia pulled aside the blanket a little, getting a glimpse of the tiny pink fingers.
The old witch groaned, staggered and sat down suddenly on the ground, holding her wrinkled old hand to her forehead. A strange sound rattled in her chest. Lydia knelt down beside her, the old woman’s voice barely a whisper.
“I cannot travel today,” she gasped, choking on the words. “This baby must have its parents. You must deliver it for me. Please.”
Lydia swallowed hard and gazed down at the baby, terrified. She looked at the worn broom with all the tags hanging from its handle.
“I can’t,” Lydia whimpered, frantic. “I don’t know how. I’ve barely even left town and only with my parents. I might get lost. What would happen to the baby?”
“You must,” Egladine said. “There is no one else.” The old woman reached out for the broom and dragged it to her. “Just speak the name of your destination. The broom will do the rest.”
The witch’s eyes closed, a long wheezing sigh rattled in her chest, and then she became very still. Lydia knew now that the old woman had spoken the truth. There was no one else. Only her.
She wrapped the baby up carefully and hung it down papoose fashion from her shoulders. Lydia straddled the broom and took a firm grip on the handle, feeling the worn grooves in her fingers, as she squeezed it tight.
Joel Reeves’ stories have appeared in several small press magazines, including Tales of the Unanticipated and the anthology Return to Deathlehem. Three of his fantasy novels, Of Quills and Kings (2009), Walpole Unbound (2011), and Dreams, Schemes, and Spiny Machines (2014) were published by Double Dragon Press. He lives in Northwest Michigan with his family and a pet cat, Penguin.