by M.C. St. John
The boys ran through the village, between the cabins and around the woodpiles, kicking up yellow and orange and brown leaves. Chickens scattered. Cows lowed. Two men chopping wood stopped their axes to watch the chase, the blur of woolen coats, peaked hats, and buckled shoes.
“They run as fevers,” one man said.
“Aye,” said the other. “Mayhap with such dispositions fewer logs will be needed for the hearths. We should be so blessed.”
“I imagine such children bring only dirt for a mother’s broom.”
“Not so long ago we were those boys, playing forgotten games.”
The first man picked up his axe. “A taller tale was never told,” he said. Then he split another stove on the chopping stump.
Across the meadow the mass of boys rolled like the shadow cast from a late autumn storm. Their clothes were hot and wet and smelled of woodsmoke. Aside from their ragged breathing, they had been largely silent in the presence of adults. But now that the village was long behind them, misted away by the gray afternoon, and no raw-knuckled father or uncle was in earshot, the largest boy, Nathaniel, grew bold.
“You can run as long as you like,” he said. “She prefers you that way. Warm and tender and scared as a rabbit.”
Another joined in, this one named Amos, slightly shorter than Nathaniel. Amos was happy to be part of the chasers this time. “First she nabs you, then she skins you,” he said, panting, “and then she cooks you with toads and mushrooms for her stew.”
Several other boys laughed and hollered behind Amos. They were pasty-faced boys, all about the same height, their cheeks and foreheads flushed with blood, with excitement; this was the only color in their skin and in their lives. The twin Mahoney brothers were there, followed by Peter, who only had nine fingers.
The same ugly sounds and faces echoed from Nathaniel to Amos to the others as if they were the same boy at different ages and with different degrees of nastiness. They crossed the meadow to the western woods where the trees had long lost their leaves to the season.
“Toads and mushrooms,” Amos said, “chopped nice and fine.”
“Ready for her suppertime,” one Mahoney said. “On William Mayfield she will dine,” said the other.
“And he’ll have less fingers than I,” Peter said, bubbling with dark laughter. He held up his hand to prove it.
Farther into the woods, these taunts stinging his ears, was young William Mayfield, the smallest boy, who, unfortunately, did resemble a rabbit. His nostrils flared and his eyes bulged as he darted between the ashen trunks of the bare trees. He had lost his hat somewhere, maybe in the meadow. His blonde hair flew in wet tangles about his temples.
“Leave me be,” he said. “I want to go home.”
“Home for you will be her cast-iron cauldron,” Nathaniel said. He was half a dozen paces behind, close enough for William to flinch with each word. “And then the belly beneath her tattered rags.”
The other boys tittered, one right after the other like dry leaves rattling on a dead branch. Or perhaps the wind had picked up and the knobby, bony trees were rubbing their fingers together. The sound was old and lonely and not used to visitors.
There was a sharp embankment to William’s left. The earth had mounded up; large stones jutted from the dirt like teeth. He feigned to the right and counted the boys’ breaths and steps. When he was sure Nathaniel was following him—and the followers following their leader—William swerved to the left and behind a fallen tree, the perfect barrier between him and the others. He scrabbled up the tangle of tree roots and then the stones to the top of the ridge.
Panting, hands on knees, William called down to them.
“Your fairy tales do not scare me. They are not true. Only children believe in them.”
Nathaniel turned to his fellow lot. The boys’ heads curled with steam, their faces burned with blood.
“Did you hear young William? He tells us we are the children. Are you, Amos?”
“I grew two inches this year.”
“What about you both?”
“We shod a horse last week all on our own,” one Mahoney said. “Two hooves apiece,” the other added.
“And even you?”
“Twas a full moon when I fought the werewolf,” Peter said. “None of my other fingers is the same length, so I must have killed it.”
“You see, William? You are in the company of men.” Nathaniel did not smile. “We tell truth of yon witch. She dwells in these woods.”
“How do you know?”
As an answer, under the gray sky the trees swayed, groaning, crying. William stood high on the ridge and felt very far away from the others, who tilted their chins at almost the same angle to watch him. Each one of them had a strange sort of sympathy printed on his face, as if William was the fool.
“I took a lock of her hair while she slept,” Amos said. “She screeched like a cat when I ripped it from her head.”
“We stole away two toads from her cauldron,” a Mahoney said. “They burned in our hands all the way home.”
“We still have the scars, see?”
“I know she sent the werewolf,” Peter said. “As she cast another spell, I bit off one of her fingers. It tasted foul.” Still, the boy looked pleased. “Under my pillow I keep the bone. ’Tis black as a cinder.”
“You have never told me these things,” William said. “Why have you kept them secret?”
“Because you were not one of us,” Nathaniel said. “Not yet.” He nodded his hairless chin. “Her hut is back yonder.”
“You don’t scare me,” William said, though he did not mean it. His heart pounded as hard as the hammer of Phillip Mahoney, the twins’ father, on his blacksmith anvil. “She does not scare me either. I will prove it.”
He turned on his heels and walked away from the others. Wet leaves and earths squelched beneath his shoes. High above, the trees continued to scratch each other in the wind. William heard voices. The other boys, he assumed, or the woods, or ones inside his own head.
I will show them.
But the hair and the toads, the scars and the stumps. Peter kept the bone. They kept them all. The full moon. A yowling cat. The boiling cauldron. Black as cinder. Tattered rags. You can run as long as you like. Chopped nice and fine. Warm and tender and scared as a rabbit.
From behind a copse of thin, dead trees the hut appeared, as if from his own thoughts, as if from a dark dream. It was crudely built with branches and felled logs from around the clearing. Moss, green and black and no doubt poisonous, filled many of the holes. Branches the size of children’s arms made the door, lashed together with old rope. To the side of the hut burbled a small creek, where toads and other creatures lived. The hut was dark.
William pushed away an image of the dwelling at night, how the fires within would cast eldritch shapes and shadows into the woods, how the hut would come to life and grin and beckon a foolish traveller.
Ready for her suppertime.
You will have less fingers than I.
William stood at the door. This close, he saw mushrooms blooming in wet clusters. They speckled the walls. Some watched with their glistening eyes from a branch above him. Come in, come in, little boy—little delicious boy.
He pushed open the door and stepped inside.
Darkness was what he expected. Instead he saw above him more of the same gray sky, roughly hemmed with branches that formed the hut’s walls. There was no roof.
“You must need the light of the moon to cast spells,” William said, thinking of Peter’s hands. “You’ve enchanted this place to hide your things.”
It was the only explanation for the bare floor, which was much like the ground outside the hut, littered with roots and leaves and more clutches of mushrooms. There was no cauldron hanging above a fire. No fire at all. No dried herbs on the walls. No ancient, skinbound books of incantations. No knives or forks or pokers or plates. No tattered robes or gnarled walking sticks. No jars of pickled animal innards. No bones of ravens, or even children. No broom either.
Through the holes in the walls the window whistled and moaned.
“You must keep things secret when you are away,” William said, to no one, to himself, “while you hex Zachary Stevens’s cattle or pull bodies from their graves in the churchyard.”
He nodded at the emptiness, growing bolder with his reasoning.
“Yes, you are hiding away because someone like me may come when you least expect and see you for what you are. Because you are scared.”
In the middle of the enclosure a large rock poked out of the ground. William bent down and saw a small hollow. Inside was dry and almost warm compared to the dreariness all around. His hand happened on a rough pile of hard objects. He snatched them up, opened his palm to examine them in the light.
“But you made a fatal error,” he said. “You could not have expected William Henry Mayfield to arrive this day and find your secret spot. Others may have gotten your hair or toads or fingers, but I’ve taken the very things you needed had you caught me for your cauldron.”
He tipped over his open palm and let the dark, bony fragments tumble out into his other hand. They rattled together.
“Your teeth,” he said.
Some he saw were so stained with blood they were wine-colored. The rough molars. One was clearly a fang, perhaps from one of her transformations. All of them were sharp and certainly not shrivelled, as mushroom caps tend to turn when winter comes to this part of the country. No, the thought never crossed William’s mind. Who could ever mistaken these for what they were?
“The teeth of the terrible witch,” he said.
Then he pocketed his find and backed away from the rock, which appeared more like a skull than he had realized. Now that the thought crossed his mind, it could be a skull—her skull.
He did not stay to look any closer. A strong wind came up and tore through the trees. The branches now raked across one another, moving shadows and moaning. William turned tail and ran from the hut, his hand clasped across his coat to still his beating heart. The teeth were in his breast pocket. They dug through the wool of his coat and into his skin.
Already he saw in his mind’s eye how she bit him, right as he had gone through her door. But he bested her with his speed. So quick was William Mayfield that the next time she lunged for him, he plucked her bared teeth from her head as kernels from the cob. The other boys should have seen it, for it was a sight to behold.
They would hear the story. As the hut vanished in the gloom behind him, William rushed back through the woods to the familiar voices, in the direction of the village, of home, excited with where to begin.