And the wood witch talked in her sleep.
When she did so, men came from miles around to hear her words, convinced she would tell them the best time of day to hunt, the easiest way to bring in a harvest, the steps needed to enter a woman’s heart.
Once such man, a tall and skinny farmer who the others called Lamb, went alone to see the wood witch. This had never been done before, and the others were sure Lamb would never return. Many of them began dividing up his belongings as soon as he vanished on the horizon. By the third hour of his departure, some were already spinning a new mythology, the story of Lamb the Brave, or Lamb the Imbecile. By the tenth hour, the village slept and mostly forgot Lamb until morning.
It was during that first night Lamb found the wood witch. The forest was thick as buffalo hide in winter so that he could barely make his way through to the place she had lived for the last hundred generations. Lamb didn’t mind. He listened for her nighttime ramblings through the kudzu until he came upon a massive section of earth bulging skyward as far as the treetops – the wood witch’s home, the one spoken of in stories, always disguised as a mound or small hill but, in truth, a pearl and gold palace the likes of which could only be found in The Great Hunt After.
Lamb stepped carefully and placed his ear to the raised section of earth. A murmuring came from inside, a low hum he imagined cicadas made when at rest. He then backed away and waited. This wasn’t his first visit to the wood witch. He had been twice before with groups. Once to listen for details about a missing girl and a second time, four years later, as part of the annual community visit to give thanks. It was the trip to find out about the missing girl he remembered most clearly. Not because of the visit itself but because of the girl, Emma.
Lamb knew Emma’s family. Most families were close in the little town, in an almost boring fashion that only led to disruption most the time. They celebrated together, they mourned together, they knew one another’s weaknesses and scars. So Lamb, like everyone, knew Emma’s family and knew her family was poor and prone to violence and thievery and general desperation. But, just as they knew this much, they were also painfully aware how different Emma was than the rest of her family. Where her mother and father and two brothers went without bathing or grooming, Emma always appeared in public with perfectly combed hair and a smooth and clean skin. Her clothes were tattered and stained, but impeccably clean. Where the others went without shoes in warmer weather, Emma always wore a pair of bright yellow slippers that shone like gold coins wherever she stepped.
The yellow slippers were the only thing the search team found the day Emma disappeared. It was well past sunset and full dark when Lamb himself spotted the glimmering through the dark, a yellow sparkling in the very middle of the forest. Because of the location, the entire town agreed that Emma had been taken by the wood witch.
Now towns, over the course of time, have become more…intelligent, more insightful, less prone to suspicion. Less dumb. But in those still early days, the idea that a wood witch had emerged from her home inside the earth and snatched away this beautiful little girl, the one true star in the sinking sky of her family, was as much a fact, as much of a need, as crops and rain, sunrise and moonlight. So when Lamb found the slippers, he didn’t need to say anything. He only held them up for the others to see as they approached. In turn, each of the others in the search party said nothing. One by one they lowered their heads and stood in silence in the darkness.
It was during that silence, the group heard a child crying very far away at the edge of the forest. Emma’s father said it was his daughter’s cry. He said he would know her cry anywhere because she often went into the backlot of their house in the mornings and cried. No one in the party asked anything further, though there were questions; it was enough that the father was convinced and maybe, just maybe, the wood witch hadn’t taken a life, as this has never happened. For the entire time the town had been the town, the wood witch had been taken care of in such a way that the town or its citizens had never been in danger. What type of danger, no one would have been able to guess at before Emma’s disappearance. But this had never mattered because at some point long forgotten by the town an arrangement had been made not long after the wood witch was first discovered. The arrangement was typical sacrificial fair, various animals, most often a stray dog if one could be found, but from time to time, and depending on penance, half a man’s crop might be found cut and dying in the middle of the forest. These sacrifices were doled out by the town commission, a governing body made up of prominent citizens, usually with an interest in whatever transgression took place. Emma’s father, a man called Emerald, was not by a long stretch anywhere near being on the town commission. In fact, in unanimous decision, during a closed meeting, they ultimately voted that it had been Emerald himself who had disposed of his fair daughter.
This decision followed the findings in the forest, the gold slippers. The discovery gave the commission enough reason to point a finger at Emerald. During a trial lasting less than half a day, Emerald, hung over from a long night of suffering and drinking the night before, pleaded before the trial judge (a long time commission member) asking the commission’s reason for laying such a decision against him, an abomination on himself and his surviving family members. He was told the ruling had been made based on the beauty of his daughter and his own general lack of integrity and well-being. Emerald cried out in his defense, a howling, animal wailing that filled the valley in echo and echo and echo again. What defense? What defense is this? He pleaded, he scolded. These are virtues of the flesh and the heart with no bearing on fact! At once sober and scrambling, the hung-over father only worked to more solidly establish the resolve of his opponents. His soul-shedding, a true shredding of his soul, was met with utter and total silence, the kind of silence that expressed in certain terms that it needed no rebuttal, a position that said boldly that it was well above such petty grievances. Then, an occurrence occurred.
At trial, during Emerald’s sodden crying, the forever dark forest rumbled, tilted as if the earth had become the sea. The treetops waved in surrender, tugged by strong winds, though the evening was clear and quiet. The body of the forest seemed possessed or else had a large creature moving through its middle. Everyone left quickly from the meeting hall and stood outside to watch the forest as a living creature, coming to life in that rumble. Then, just as they all settled themselves to see what would happen next, the forest grew still. Half a dozen starlings flew up and out skyward and then, finally, the last treetop stopped swaying.
The commission scrambled to gather a party of four or five men and sent them into the forest to report back. Emerald was locked away with his tears, despite his insistence to travel along and help search for his missing daughter. Your daughter is dead, the commission said to him, murdered at your own hand. Don’t take this opportunity to strengthen your lie and sin, they said to him, fastening the locks on his hands and feet. Whatever Hell-sent magic is at play here, you brought it to this town, and may you be double damned for it. They left him there, in that state, so that all he had left to do was strain to hear whatever he could as best as he could. But soon he stopped trying and fell back into sobbing. When the men reached the heart of the forest at nightfall they were astonished at the huge section of earth that had appeared since they were there last. Even more so, to find what must have been the rectangular shape of a door along the back section and, above this door-shape, the gold slippers hanging like a welcome sign.
Now the important thing to know is that the wood witch was very much real. Also, and as importantly, creatures such as this exist by the thousands, and in a thousand different more varieties. It is a reality not experienced by the casual and all too common human being whose imagination has grown lethargic, but they exist all the same. The combination of this reality and the common human’s failure to recognize it makes for a slow-spreading doom across humankind, so slow in its movement that children eaten up by forests, for instance, are placed neatly in the blindspots and considered as freak accidents or something likewise. But this town, this town held onto magic as part of its agreed reality and so when the search party found the door and the slippers, they immediately sent a man back to have Emerald released. It had not been the sordid father who had Emma’s life. If Emma’s life was ended, it was at the hand of the wood witch and that was not the final say in the matter.
However, none of this new information helped the commission very much. If anything, it complicated the matter far worse than beforehand. The oldest of the commission members was the obese and soft Usef, who had long ago hired out any work he needed done and become a permanent fixture at the stocked fishing pond from break of morning until dusk. And even Usef could only ever remember, going back as far as his early childhood, a peaceful town making small sacrifices to the wood witch and only experiencing the most natural types of death such as old age, accidents, heart failure, and the like. It was a thousand wonders he had even recalled the proper reaction and laws to a claim of murder.
There were no laws or anything to remember for an event such as they now faced. Usef could feel the rest of the men’s eyes worrying him, but all he could do was stare at the gold slippers and try to work up some amount of courage to approach the door. And do what? Knock? He didn’t suppose it could hurt. He turned to the men, gave his most confident expression, and walked the long four feet to the door. Resisting the urge to pluck the slippers dangling just above his head, he instead lifted his clenched fist and gave four hard raps.
And what do you suppose happened? Do you figure Usef and his men prepared themselves, squared their jaws, and stormed inside to annihilate the wood witch and save beautiful Emma? It is a peaceful thought, but it didn’t finish in this way. It ended tragically and painfully and bloody and in failure before, at long long last, the way things always end. In darkness, awaiting light.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of three books, most recently the novel Brown Bottle (Bottom Dog Press, 2016). His stories can be found in Unbroken Journal, Gravel, New World Writing, PANK, decomP, Keyhole, DOGZPLOT, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. He was cited in Best Small Fictions 2015 and Best Small Fictions 2016.