Zygmunt Frankel

SHORT STORIES


A WITCH GROWING OLD

The forest is dark again and another night is falling, with a nasty wind howling in the clearing like a wolf and driving the smoke back down the chimney. The smoke fills the hut and makes my eyes burn. The stove doesn't draw at all and the water for the footbath is going to take ages to warm up. And then it remains to be seen what good it is going to do once it does warm up. It's good old stuff against rheumatism provided you haven't made the rheumatism even worse by having to gather the ingredients in a bog, on a dewy night, just before sunrise. Little does one think, in one's young years while learning all this, about the time when one'll have to start using the stuff on oneself.

Out there, they have pensions and homes for old people. They are growing more liberal and democratic all the time, and it's quite conceivable that a witch grown old could crawl out of the forest and qualify for something of the sort; but of course no real witch would ever do such a thing. Two of the basic qualifications for a witch are never to be afraid of anything and never to feel alone in the forest. To be aware of danger, yes; but not to be really afraid of anything. And also to see the trees, with their birds for lice and their fungi for warts, and the animals, the snakes and the frogs, the mosquitoes and the fireflies, the bats and the wandering lights over the marshes as your home, your family, your friends, or your enemies. You can look for lovers among the humans, to take between your legs and leave them more spellbound and stunned than their simple village women ever could, and of course your customers come from the villages, but your real home is the forest, and your burial ground also. Sometimes a witch drops dead on a forest path and reaches the soil through the stomachs of scavengers. Or she dies in her bed, and in due time the forest quietly grows back over the hut, piling up a green mound. There are no milk bottles accumulating on the doorstep, and no record of anyone having stopped paying taxes. If a villager strays into the hut, in search of a cure for rheumatism or a love potion, he backs out at the sight of the skeleton with long grey hair in the bed and goes back empty-handed, mumbling prayers and crossing himself. They keep their past dealings with the witch to themselves, and, luckily, no thought of giving her a Christian burial ever occurs to them.

There has always been some going to and fro between the village and the forest: timber, firewood, game, mushrooms, berries, and, from time to time, something from the witch provided the priest doesn't hear about it. And always the fields biting a little deeper into the forest like caterpillars into a leaf. It's not like peasants to wander leisurely through the forest, gathering things, stopping to look at this or listen to that. They want their boring and rather tasteless crops to grow in orderly rows in the open where they can be sown and reaped with as little effort as possible. Gathering mushrooms and berries in the woods remains one of the great adventures of their childhood, something they had to leave behind as the price of growing up.

One day they are going to cut down the last piece of this forest, but of course I won't be here to see it. And, of course, by the time they do, the forest will have grown up somewhere else, behind their backs, in one form or another, without their having noticed anything.

It is not only mushrooms, berries, firewood, and an occasional rabbit or grouse that find their way into the village. Some of the forest stories, legends, and tales also do, and are even told to the children, but so mauled and castrated that almost nothing remains; a bird skeleton to be picked clean, without any trace of feathers, flight, or song. The worst are the incredibly stupid happy ends they stick onto the stories, like a tinsel ribbon on a wild creature's tail. Yes, the little girl they used to call Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother were indeed eaten by the wolf, and the hunter did kill him afterwards, but that thing about the wolf's stomach cut open and the girl and the old woman emerging alive and well is just a frog's fart. (Are they fond of resurrections!) The hunter just skinned the wolf for a winter coat, ate the cake and drank the wine he found in the hut, and went to inform the authorities. The girl's mother was arrested and tried for criminal negligence - you don't send a child alone into a forest full of wild animals - but the judge gave her just a token fine, considering that she had been punished enough by losing her only child and her mother in one fell swoop.

With Snowwhite they missed even worse. She is growing old now, and almost never looks into that mirror she inherited from her stepmother anymore. The prince she married is now the king, still charming, well-spoken, and cultured, although he has grown fat, has lost most of his hair, and wears glasses for reading. They rarely do anything in bed together, except talking and reading, although he does tumble a servant girl now and then. The children are now grown up, and as handsome as their parents were at their age.

The mirror always knew that it was neither the new queen nor her young stepdaughter who was the fairest in the land but me, and both of them also knew; but, as the question applied to society ladies, a young witch in the forest did not count. It must be admitted that the queen was not far behind me in beauty. In witchcraft it was something else, the old difference between a professional and an amateur. She dabbled in it quite well, and might have made a good witch if it weren't for her thirst for power and riches.

I met her in the forest once, gathering things. We'd heard about each other, and she looked me up and down. I was at my best that morning, with dew in my hair and the sperm of her chief hunter fresh inside me, and I knew then that she was going to try and kill Snowwhite.

Of course the hunter did not bring her a wild boar's heart instead; she was not to be fooled that easily. He staked everything on his bloody knife and more bloodstains on his coat and breeches, knowing that the queen would sense it was Snowwhite's blood and hoping it would make her so happy that she wouldn't stop to consider any other causes of a young virgin bleeding. He told me later that he was dead scared coming back like this without Snowwhite's heart, and while reporting to the queen he made a great effort to imagine Snowwhite dead in the forest (not too difficult, seeing that he left her there alone) and to project that image into the queen's mind. For all he knew he might not be lying because, although he had given Snowwhite his food and his water flask and shown her the general direction, the forest was dense and dangerous and her chances of getting through were slim. She realised that herself, and said, quietly and sadly, that he may be the last human being she was seeing in her life, and clung to him and he held her tight and stroked her hair. Then she said, in the same quiet voice and without any prompting on his part, that she would like to try what it was like to lie with a man before she went off into the forest. Afterwards, as she was bleeding rather heavily, he got the idea of smearing some of the blood on his knife and clothes. They did talk about going off together, but decided against it because if he did not come back the queen would send her hunters and dogs after them and it would be all over for both of them.

(He also liked the easy and glittering life at the castle, and being the chief hunter. There was also a matter of loyalty because the queen had taken him into her bed a few times. And then, last but not least, there was me. He did not say any of this in so many words, but I could read his thoughts and heart quite well. Snowwhite was a fresh and charming virgin, and the queen a beautiful lady of the castle, but I was not a witch for nothing and could hold him better than the two of them together. Some of those tricks still serve me well in my old age, on the by now rare occasions when I want a man, because I can make them see me not as I am today but as when I was young; or I can turn into a neighbour's wife or that young girl from the other end of the village they are all pining for. It is one of the compensations, in a witch's old age, for the home, husband, and children she never had.)

And that prince charming that Snowwhite married was not the second man she ever slept with unless you discount the dwarfs. Her life with them in the forest is another one of those things they pat smooth and put icing on top of. They make the dwarfs much smaller than they really are, and make them wear pretty red caps. Apart from some flowers, berries, autumn leaves, one poisonous mushroom, and the robin's breast, the only red thing in the forest is blood; although the dwarfs are fond of flashy things and would wear red caps if they had them. (The people who tell those stories never stop to ask themselves where the dwarfs come from. They have heard about satyrs and devils, and about the Neanderthal man and Homo Sapiens having overlapped and lived side by side for about ten thousand years, but that's as far as they go.) There were certainly no kisses and no serenades while Snowwhite lived with them in their cave (and not a pretty little house as the story would have it); they were merrily slipping their pricks into her at all times without any romantic preliminaries, and she enjoyed it as much as they did. When the prince saw her in the forest he did wake her up with a kiss in a way, but that is another point the story has missed. The waking up was to gentle and chivalrous love in a canopied bed, to the palace with a library and a large fireplace and court society and etiquette and children and the chapel on Sundays. The lower part of her body would always remember the dwarfs and enjoy the memory, especially when the king was a bit too gentle about his lovemaking, but she would keep this to herself. She had a way of saying (out of the king's earshot because he resented the mention of anything they had not shared) "when I lived in the forest" like people say "when I was a little child", and, in the retelling, the period grew shorter and shorter until one was free to conclude that the prince found her as soon as she was left alone in the forest.

It is possible that the prince did have his suspicions, that he did notice Snowwhite was not a virgin on her wedding night, although she did her best to fake it, and he, to believe it. Did she by any chance talk in her sleep? There may have been only one lie the prince ever told her, shortly after their marriage, about occasionally liking to hunt alone. It is a fact that he was in the forest on the day of the great slaughter of the dwarfs; and that in spite of having set out at dawn with his crossbow, knife, and short sword, all he brought in at dusk was a single hare, still warm, obviously shot by the prince on his way back, somewhere near the castle, almost like an afterthought.

The forest would have taken care of the bodies in its own good time and I might not have known anything about it had I not run into a badger slinking along a forest path with a small but adult human hand in its teeth. I followed some trails and found the bodies, already stinking and with all sorts of things gnawing at them. Their pricks have been cut off and thrown into the bushes. Snowwhite doesn't know anything about it to this day, and the prince who had always been a rich hunting lord who held peasants and merchants in polite contempt suddenly started on big projects of clearing the forest and turning it into farmland. One day, though none of us will live to see it, this forest will be gone altogether. The other one will spring up somewhere behind their backs, perhaps of brick and concrete, and other witches will live in it. It won't be the same but they won't know the difference because nobody lives long enough to experience both.

But this forest will last a long time yet; it is large, deep, and dark, and not letting itself be cut down in a hurry. The footbath has helped a little after all; the wind has died down and the stove is drawing better; it is warm and drowsy under the blanket.

The forest is whispering and murmuring outside. The things that sleep at night have already fallen asleep, and the other ones are waking up and setting forth. One day, the forest will reclaim this hut and myself, but, in a way, I already am this forest; have always been. And as the forest sends out its night creatures, so do I send my dreams.

Go out, owls on silent wings, bats across the moon, fireflies over the bog; go out, my dreams; good hunting.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
You are welcome to print-out this material for your personal reading, but it is illegal to modify or sell it


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