The harvest moon hung low in the sky as the witch waited for the firstborn to arrive.
Long ago, the witch found shelter in the abandoned cottage. The cottage was nestled in the forest on the tall mountain. A hunter chose the same, hiding from a fierce thunderstorm and holding a wounded arm. The witch cured the man, asking only for the buck he’d bagged. The hunter gladly gave it in return for his bow arm.
The hunter returned to the village in the valley below the tall mountain, bringing news of the witch, her cure, her price. Soon the witch began receiving visitors of all sorts, looking to cure ills and bring prosperity. Her prices were equal to the asking, often amounting to food and creature comforts for the cottage. The witch’s youth was fading and her days of wandering the forests were over. She set herself in the cottage and took the village in the valley under her care.
Years passed full of broken bones mended, crops blessed, and healthy children delivered. All the while the witch lived pleasantly, if sparsely. The woods provided her the herbs and materials for her spells. The stream provided her water. The village provided her food that she could not tend in her own garden. She lived contented and the wheel of the years turned.
Then a young girl, one she had helped deliver, knocked on her door asking for her craft. The witch, thinking it a delivery or a case of heartache, showed her into the cottage. The girl sat by the hearth and the witch brought her some tea. After a few sips, the girl explained her problem.
Her and her husband had been married for three years and her belly had not swollen once. The girl looked down into her tea. She feared she may be unable to conceive.
The witch, very disturbed, stopped her. She warned the girl of the great cost a spell like that would cost. To create something from nothing was not possible without something equal in return, something that may not be to the girl’s liking.
The girl looked up at the witch in tears, begging her. The witch told the girl to finish her tea and sleep on it a fortnight. If she was set on this path, she was to come back with her husband at that time. In the meanwhile, the witch would ponder.
She consulted every grimoire she’d ever stolen. Read each page time and time again. Prayed to the moon goddess for answers, danced in the starlight for inspiration. The magic found her. Magic that would serve her and the girl evenhandedly. The potency scared her, young as she still was, but the solution pleased her, and she searched no further for an alternate solution.
A fortnight passed and the girl returned with her husband in tow. The witch once again warned the girl that the price would be steep for such a spell. The girl, weeping with joy, cried that no price was too dear. So the witch danced.
The circle opened and the magic flooded in. The witch danced around the couple, letting the magic pass through her and into them, ringing the bell all the while. The wind rose. A crow squawked. Branches shook and twisted in the electric wind. With a final motion, the witch rose her hands to the moon and let the magic twist itself through her and into the couple. She rang the bell once more, a sharp, clear sound, and the wind stopped. The circle closed.
The couple looked around in wonder, eyes settling on the witch who had collapsed to her knees. They ran to her aid and found her exhausted. The witch confirmed the spell had worked, that the couple would conceive. The girl began to thank her, but the witch stopped her in her tracks.
“You were barren, I was fruitful. I gave you my own bounty to tend your fields and plant your seeds. But now your children are my children. Your joy is my joy. All firstborn children from your line must be born with me present to survive. And again, on the first full moon after their sixteenth birthday, they must see me to survive their childhood and become adults. In return for this burden, I will grant each child a spell. Let them learn from this one, that some prices are higher than others.”
The witch, her old bones shaking in the autumn wind, looked again at the yellow moon above her, repeating the cursed words she’d uttered to the couple so many years ago. The words that had made them recoil in fear. The words that had ruined her.
The words that kept her from leaving this accursed world.
The repercussions of her spell did not manifest for another year. She found out about it when the boy who brought her fresh milk every morning did not knock. By the time she’d gone out her door, the milk had spoiled in the sun.
After few visitors and a scry or two, she pieced together the strange fear in the air. The girl had been with child. The couple moved across the lake for the birth, hoping to put distance between themselves and the witch. The child had been born healthy, breathing, bellowing, pink. Then it had died in the girl’s arms before the sun rose.
The witch grieved. The girl hated her for her price, the girl tried to outrun it. In the foolishness of youth, the girl doomed her child, the witch’s child, to death. Tragedy hung over her like darkness in the night, encompassing, suffocating. This was her end. This was the price for her selfishness.
The village stopped coming to the cottage in the forest on the mountain. With no visitors, the witch ate little and reflected on her mistakes. She should not have granted the girl the spell. That much she understood, and looked wistfully out down the tall mountain at the little lights and curling smoke from the chimneys. The witch decided it was time to move on, though regret ate at her heart.
On the morning before the witch was set to depart, a knock came at the door. The girl stood before her, hands gently resting on her swollen belly. The girl’s eyes, rimmed red, seethed with anger. Her words bit deeply. The birth was expected within the month. It would be well for the witch to attend.
The witch nodded and watched the girl march down the path and into the forest, footsteps echoing anger. The witch did her best to stay silent, but the joy of her first child being brought forth into the world was too much to bear. That night, and many nights after, the witch danced and sang. Perhaps her misery was not for nothing.
The day arrived and one of the girl’s sisters came to gather her. The witch, never having been to the village before but for childbirths, eagerly set forth upon the overgrown path. This was a chance to show the village that she was not to be feared after all. It was a chance for the witch’s redemption.
The birth was uneventful but for the somber faces and the disgusted glances in the witch’s direction. Her joy for the birth melted as she stared at the floor, chanting quietly. The witch focused on the spell she was weaving for good health, good luck, and good fortune on the child’s behalf. It was a boy. The witch took the child in her arms and blessed him, marking his forehead with sage ash before turning to the couple. They glared. The husband took the child out of her arms and reminded her that she’d see him again on the full moon after his sixteenth birthday. The witch bowed and exited, walking home on a silent road, trying to remember the feel of her son in her arms.
Sixteen more years outside the village. Surely she would receive visitors now that the child lived. Perhaps things would be as they once were, and she would live happily apart.
The witch laughed at the remembrance. Foolish. She had been young and foolish. One death is enough to sour anyone’s good opinion of witches forever. She knew that now, with three deaths in the line since. There were no more visitors. Only the firstborn.
The first child arrived at her cottage on the night of the full moon, just as asked. The witch’s hair had greyed in the preceding years and her body had thinned from the meager living she now afforded herself. The child was right to recoil in fear, though that did not comfort the hurt in her heart. Her child. Her son. Here.
The boy clumsily asked what she would have of him. She told him of the spell she’d woven for his mother and how he was to receive one wish. The price would match the spell required and he’d do well to remember his mother’s mistake. The boy thought for a moment before shyly looking at the ground. She asked what was in his heart. He shrugged and mentioned a village girl. She didn’t know he existed, he insisted, but he wished to marry her.
The witch was disappointed. A love spell. That was all he could think of. Sixteen years of preparation, sixteen years of waiting for an interaction with her child and all he could think of asking of her was a silly love spell. The frustration she felt must have shown in her face for the boy took a few steps back and crossed his arms. With a sigh, she wove the spell to let him continue into adulthood, along with the love spell.
He turned to go but she bade him to wait. The price was still to be decided. His face grew stony and his lips pursed. The witch asked what his trade was. The boy tended his family’s orchard. She asked for a bushel of each crop they grew every harvest. His brow furrowed but he agreed. Before he turned, she reminded him not to forget to send someone up when he had his first child. She would need to be there.
A mere four years later she was summoned for the birth. The joy she once felt was gone, avoiding the cutting eyes of her first child. And sixteen years later, granted the next child a spell. This time it was a girl and she asked the witch to fix her crooked teeth. The witch agreed in exchange for new clothes.
And so the cycle went on. The witch grew older, and firstborn children continued being born. A few generations passed before someone forgot to travel up the mountain for a birth. The baby died and the witch was remembered. The wheel turned.
The witch didn’t know how old she was anymore. She’d even lost count of the children. All she had was a collection of memories of silly spells for beauty, for love, for wealth, all in exchange for food or clothes or a new kettle. The witch’s life lingered while children were still born and she refused to die on them. She had done the family enough damage- she would not permanently end their line as her final act.
The spells she’d used to elongate her life had taken their toll. Her eyes barely worked, and she squinted to read her grimoires. Her bones shook with cold in all but the summer when the sun warmed her paper-thin skin.
The village below moved on. No one had use for witches any longer. The village spread, stalled, and spread some more. Now the village center had moved, miles and miles away, while only farmland butted up against her forest.
She sat rocking in her chair, squinting in the moonlight for movement in the trees. A firstborn was bound to this moon. If the family had forgotten, there would be another dead child on her hands. Her dead child. The witch struggled to remember what the child’s gender had been and then gave up as leaves rustled on the path.
There, standing in the cottage’s clearing, was the latest firstborn.
Fiery red hair ran down to this one’s waist, with warm, dark brown eyes that looked black in the moonlight. The witch motioned for the child to come closer so that she might look at her.
The child came and knelt beside the witch, eyes wide in awe.
“My lady,” the child said, “I come to you as commanded on the full moon of my sixteenth year.”
The witch nodded.
“Is it true that you will grant me one wish?”
The witch spoke, her throat crackling with disuse, “Yes. What will you have of me?”
The child’s eyes flickered downwards for a moment before settling on the witch’s gnarled knuckles. She placed her young, soft hands over the witch’s. The witch had not been touched by another for decades and she basked in the feeling of her child’s warmth.
“My lady,” the child whispered, looking at their joined hands, “I ask to be your apprentice.”
The witch stopped rocking.
“Foolish child, you know not what you ask,” the witch muttered, pulling her hands away.
“But I do!”
“You do not,” the witch reprimanded, “You ask in ignorance. The world has no more use for witches. They have moved on.”
The child was quiet a moment. Then, “My lady, we have not moved on. Why, in my family, we have great regard for witches.”
The witch cackled. “What regard would you have for a selfish old woman who cursed an entire line?”
“Cursed? No, my lady,” the child said, “In my family we speak of the witch who allowed us life. A woman who ensured our line continued and granted us great magic in return for only food and needs for survival. When my family has lived so long and grown so large and with so much fortune at our backs, how can you say we are cursed?”
The witch licked her lips. She imagined the large family, all her children, loving and laughing through generations. Only she wasn’t there. Nor were three of the babies.
“And of the dead?” she asked.
The witch thought back. How many years had it been since a child had died? She couldn’t remember. Perhaps it was too far back for the child to even know of. But ignorance was no excuse.
“No matter how you view it, child, a witch’s life is one of solitude and revile. I have lived it too long. I know. It will do you no good to become a witch. Isn’t there some man you would like to woo, or some flaw that you would like fixed?”
“No, my lady. Men are nothing to me and my flaws are my own. Ever since I was little, I have wanted nothing more than to meet you. And learn from you, if you’d have me.”
A pain rose in the witch’s chest and her lip trembled of its own accord. So many of her children had passed by her doorstep. None had ever cared for her. Now one of her children finally saw her, spoke kindly to her. Wanted to be with her.
“Child, do not take this path lightly. This is your last chance,” the witch whispered.
“Then consider the last chance gone. I am at your call.”
“You will not marry. You will have no children.”
“I understand, my lady.”
“People will not love you.”
“I disagree, my lady, for I know a witch I love well enough.”
The witch closed her eyes and recited the spell that would let the child live through the night. Tears caught in the many crevasses in her face and she squeezed the child’s hand.
“What do they call you, child?”
“Nora, my lady.”
“Nora,” the witch said, “You enter the craft willingly and readily. Indeed, you have already broken your first curse.”
Two years and a day passed before the witch finally passed the last of her knowledge. The grimoires had been rewritten and rebound, the spells spoken and practiced. Nora was a fine weaver of spells and excellent at the craft. On the night of the harvest moon, just after Nora’s eighteenth birthday, the witch brought her to sit outside in the pale light.
The witch said goodbye. It was difficult, and oft she wondered if not she should extend her life further, if only to spend more time with the girl. But it was not to be- her body was failing and she’d passed down her inheritance, her life’s work. The Earth was ready for her.
Nora did her best to hold back tears. The wind picked up and the witch held the hand of her daughter one last time. Her daughter. The thought brought a smile to her lips and she closed her eyes and let the wind take her. Her skin crumbled. Her bones snapped. With one large gust, she turned to dust and chased the wind and the sky. Down below, Nora looked up. She smiled down, dancing in the air beside the moon, at her daughter and friend, free for the first time in centuries.