Grandma used to tell me all sorts of stories before she fell ill. She told me about the witch who lived far away in the deep dark woods and would grant wishes. But only if you completed the tasks she set you. If you failed, she would cook you and eat you.
I loved listening to those stories. Once, when I was about six, I declared that I would go and find the witch and ask her to give me wings so I could fly. But grandma grabbed my shoulders with her bony fingers and shook me until my teeth rattled.
“Never do that!” she said. She made me swear that I would never go into the woods. It wasn’t just the witch, she said. There were werewolves and monsters and all sorts of dangers.
I kept my promise for almost eight years.
The sickness came to our village the summer I turned fourteen. It started with a a fever and cough that soon turned bloody. Some people recovered, but in most cases the victim’s skin turn grey and swollen and they died within a couple of days. Grandma collected herbs and flowers which she used to make medicines that she gave to the sick but it was no use. They coughed and vomited the medicine back up again, and then they died. The sickness took the fisherman’s wife, seven of the village’s children, and the old man who was so skilled at carving wood.
And then grandma began to cough.
I knew the bunches of dried herbs in our house could not help her, so I crept out before dawn and headed to the woods. Perhaps the witch was just a tale told to frighten children. But if she was real, then I would do what I could to earn a wish. Grandma had taught me to spin and weave and chop wood and skin rabbits and many other things. I could be useful.
Our village lay next to a stream that twisted its way through a deep valley. The sides of the valley were covered by a thick blanket of pine trees. These were not part of the woods that grandma warned me about. Everyone in the village had walked under these trees. When the summer brightness of the trees turned golden we would pick blueberries and chanterelles, and in the dead of winter when all was black and grey and dark green, we collected wood for our fires.
The valley sides were safe, but beyond the ridge the woods started. The trees there were older and the undergrowth was dark and impenetrable. And somewhere, in these shadows, the witch must live.
The familiar path through the pine trees petered out at the top of the slope. I took a deep breath and stepped forwards, into the woods. There were no paths here, so I fought my way through thickets of brambles, walked amid patches of ferns that grew up to my shoulders, and clambered over fallen trees. It was nearly noon. Somewhere above me the sun must be shining, but here under the the trees there was nothing but gloomy twilight. The air smelt of damp and decay.
I wondered where in the woods the witch lived. Would she live in a gingerbread house, or a hut that stood on chicken legs? I scanned the ground in front of me for tracks of any kind. Sometimes I stopped to listen, but the only noise was a gust of wind soughing through the branches far above my head. There were no birds, not even any insects. It was like the wood was holding its breath. Waiting for something, or someone.
Gradually, I became aware of a noise just on the edge of my hearing. A bird? No, it couldn’t be. It was more like rocks scraping against each other, but shriller. Curiosity and fear fought inside me. Fear gained, then curiosity surged forward and got the upper hand. Back and forth, back and forth. Could it be the witch? Curiosity won. I headed towards the noise.
It grew louder as I walked. Then I saw light ahead, and I stepped forward into the strangest clearing I had ever seen. The ground was littered with felled trees and branches. On one side lay a pile of logs taller than a house. On the other was a strange cart, or perhaps it was a beast. It was yellow and it clawed at the trees, making the horrendous shrieking noise that I had heard.
There were a couple of men moving around. They were dressed in bright orange tunics and carried saws that shrieked when they set them against trees. I stopped and stared because they cut through the trees impossibly fast. This must be witchcraft.
Then the shrieking saws fell silent. One of the men had spotted me. He yelled something. His language was full of strange sounds and words I could only half understand. But there was no mistaking his anger as he marched towards me, waving his arms.
So I ran as fast as I could across the clearing, away from the men in the orange tunics and the great yellow beast that tore the trees to pieces. They didn’t follow, but I kept running. Before long I reached a path that was wider than I was tall. It cut straight across the clearing. I realised suddenly that it wasn’t a clearing in the woods at all. There were hardly any trees ahead of me. The woods had been cut away as far as the eye could see. From the colour of the leaves and the pine needles, it hadn’t been that long ago. Had all these trees been felled by the men I had seen? It seemed impossible, even with witchcraft.
I followed the path the rest of the afternoon. Twice noisy yellow carts trundled past, each bearing two men in orange tunics. Both times I hid behind a stack of logs and waited until they were out of sight. The shadows were lengthening when the remains of the forest gave way to fields full of cows. We had cows in my village, perhaps four dozen altogether, but they were nowhere near as big as these. I hurried past them. The sun began to sink on the western horizon, and still I walked. The path I was following changed from mud and gravel to smooth black rock that soaked up the heat of the sun. More witchcraft? But then, where was the witch?
It took another day before I reached the first houses. They were tall houses built from square stones and with huge windows of glass. They looked nothing like the little gingerbread cottage I had pictured. I chose a house at random and knocked on the door. A woman opened it. She wore strange clothes in bright colours and her hair had blue streaks in it. I asked if she was the witch, and she spoke words I couldn’t understand.
I’m still not sure what happened after that. The woman motioned for me to wait on a bench, so I did. She gave me water and food: a piece of soft white bread and an apple that was sweeter than any apple I had ever tasted. Then more people came. They said things I didn’t understand, and peered into my eyes, and took me in one of the noisy carriages to a large house where everything was clean and white. They stuck me with needles and washed my hair and put me in a room full of strange boxes with flickering lights and soft little noises. I didn’t understand any of it. I still don’t.
Perhaps the blue-haired woman was the witch and I failed the task she set me because I couldn’t understand her. I don’t know. But I guess my grandma is dead now.