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Witchwood

by Georgina Bruce

 

This is a terrible village. No one comes here. No one leaves. I’ve thought about other places, but thinking is the same as dreaming, because there is nowhere else to go. There is only the forest, and in the forest there is nothing but bitter black roots and mice and broken wings to live on, and no one can live on this except something as evil and misgiving as the forest itself. Like the witch, who they say steals babies out of wombs and turns breast milk sour; the witch whose own womb is full of earwigs and dust.

We don’t go into the forest.

Anyway it is too cold. It’s so cold that my mother’s heart has turned to ice. And my father’s, too. He stays out, lies on his back on the floor of the shop, behind boxes of grey soap and tinned meat, with his shirt open and belly hanging out. If he ever comes home it’s to tear at my mother’s skirts, ransacking her for money.

Ah, you keep it up your skirts, wife! he says, grabbing at her, and she knocks him away with the flat of her broad red hand.

My mother says I should marry, and then I will understand why she has such strength in her hands.

Sometimes the shopkeeper drags my father home at night and leaves him in a heap outside our door. We have to get on either side of him and lift him into the house, in case the neighbours think we’ve put him out to die. The shopkeeper laughs at my father behind his hand. He sits outside his shop, smoking and drinking tea, and watching his car, which is the only one in our village. He has long hands and a black mark underneath his left eye, like a thumbprint, which I cannot help but stare at.

When the shopkeeper looks at me his eyes dart and prickle all over my body like insects. Everybody says it’s lucky for me.

My mother tells me to take the scarf from my head and re-tie it as we pass the shop. She pinches my arm to remind me, but I do not need reminding. When I untie my scarf my hair falls across my face and my cheeks burn. I misstep and stumble on the rubble path. My mother makes a show of tying my scarf around my head and scolding me, and the shopkeeper watches with a smile in the corners of his mouth.

The next day my mother comes to me by the river, where I’m washing woollen clothes in the icy water. The blue washing powder scours the skin from my palms, and my fingers float numbly in the water, swollen red. She presses a piece of bread into my damp hand.

Go to the forest and get mushrooms, she says.

She does not look at my face and her own face is shut. What mushrooms can grow in the frozen wood?

No one goes into the forest, I say. There is a witch. You can’t make me go in there.

But my mother says I must go and come home with mushrooms in my pockets, or I must not come home at all.

When you come back you are to be married, she says. I’m telling you so you won’t be afraid.

And she pushes me towards the trees, her big hands and her iron hair and her thin mouth all set firm.

It is dark in the forest, black and green. I walk fast to get warm, and my heart thuds and my chest shakes. The forest crunches and snaps; twigs and ice break under my boots. Each snap, each flapping wing, is the witch coming for me; her long arms and her gaping mouth reaching for me.

No one has ever showed me where to find mushrooms, or how. But that doesn’t matter. In our village, there is no special way of doing things. After a mile or so I stop and look around, wary of losing my way back home. There is a red splash of berries on a tree, and I stare at them, their brightness stinging my eyes. This will be my marker. When I turn my head away, tears spring to my eyes, and when I close them, there is an after image of burning red fruit.

Night will come and swallow me whole here. It will feed me to the witch. Still I step forward, deeper into the dark. There is a heart beating beside my own, a foot stepping in my footsteps, the slice of silver metal as a knife is drawn, and the scratching of claws scuttling over the forest floor. I run without rhythm, stumbling through narrow paths of trees and darkling groves and mouldering bushes and into a clearing, where I trip on a root, and fly. As I fall I hear nothing but the silence of the forest, my own breathing, and the emptiness under my body.

No pain; no bones are broken. I raise myself to my knees, and see where I’ve fallen, running my hands over the mud and grass. Everywhere my fingers touch there are tall, fleshy, spiky mushrooms. They push upwards, gently swaying, brown and beige and pink and white, with wet teardrops on the tips of their heads. They are so surprising that I put my face down close to the ground to see them better.

One leans towards me, dancing, and another wraps around my leg. It pulls at me, rubs the back of my knee. The ground moves beneath me, a wave of mushrooms pushing up out of the mud. Their hard tips nudge against my skin.

Mud oozes around my fingers, as my hands sink into the grass. The mushrooms push and press all around, seeking my warmth. Steam rises off my clothes, vapours shimmering in the dark. I can’t remember what it is to be cold.

Later, my skirt pockets are full of firm mushrooms the size of fingers and thumbs. Dawn breaks in pink slices through the trees, and I drink icy water from a stream. Birds above me announce the grey morning. Everything is more beautiful now. Crouching under a tree to relieve myself, I think that even the sound of my piss trickling into the ground is pleasant.

I am lost, and glad. I’ll keep walking — who knows where — deeper and deeper into the forest. Make fire with damp wood, and live on roots and weeds. I’ll wander forever and never find that cold dead village.

But then something drops into my skirts, and looking up I see that I’m crouched underneath a spray of bright red berries. There at my back is the cold, hard track that leads to my village. The path is thin, like a piece of string, and it ties itself around my heart and pulls. It is the pull of duty, not love. But I am strong now. I’ll go back, and carry my warmth inside me like a flame cupped behind a hand.

My mother must have been waiting, because she comes to the door and pushes me into the house where a fire burns and the smoke clogs in my throat. I turn out my pockets onto the table, handfuls of mushrooms rolling on the wood. The women come and give my mother grim looks that I don’t understand, and push me out of the way while they pick through the mushrooms.

Did you see the witch? they ask me. I shake my head.

Oho, they say. Didn’t you hear her coming for you? They talk about her body so bent over, her long arms, her dry and dusty womb. She has claws for fingers and white-filmed eyes and she dries your juice and sours your milk.

As the women talk the stories grow bigger and there are sounds behind the stories; the sound of singing voices, the sound of breathing in and out. The women laugh, which I have never heard before or I cannot remember. It sounds like the cackle of crows, the lowing of cattle, the grunting of sows, and it bubbles up in my throat, too.

It is good that you came back, the women say. You’re safe now. Stay here and make a warm bed with your husband. Then she cannot touch you.

But my mother does not look at my face.

The shopkeeper has bought me a pair of blue jeans with silver studs on the pockets. They are tight and stiff, and smell of chemicals. I put them on and my mother shakes her head but all the same she pushes me out to the shopkeeper’s car, and he drives me to the next village, where I’ve never been. It’s like our village, no different, no better. The shop sells the same things, the windows hold the same faces.

On the way back the shopkeeper drinks from a bottle and steers the car with one hand, and with the other he grabs at me, kneading my thighs and breasts, while I push him away, away. The skin on his palms is cracked and hard.

You’re my wife, he says, twisting his knuckles against my thigh.

No, not yet, I say, pinching his skin with sharp nails.

He grunts and shoots his hand between my legs, swerving the car across the road. I push and pull at his wrist, but his fist is lodged there, firmly, pressing against me through my jeans. When the car bumps and leaps over potholes in the bad road, I bump and leap against his knuckles. He doesn’t look at me any more, just quickly and carefully steers his car into every hole in the road.

• • •

Every day I walk past the shop with my scarf untied but the shopkeeper won’t look at me now. There are bruises on my arms where his long hands gripped me. His black mark, the whitened saliva at the edges of his mouth; I closed my eyes. I said, no, no, but he didn’t listen, and afterwards he walked away and spat on the ground.

After a week of me walking up and down past the shop, my father comes home one night and slaps me across the face. He says, so the witch got you after all. He says, you’re trying to destroy my life. That man has a car, you little whore, and we have nothing. He picks me up and throws me across the room, and my mother pulls him off me and punches him in the side of the head.

The shopkeeper is not going to marry me.

Stupid girl, my mother says. You should have run when you could. Now what will you do?

The baby comes out on the end of a long knitting needle, drawn by my mother in the close room. She does not let me see, but throws it onto the fire where it sizzles. She tells me not to scream and covers my mouth with her big hands. I bite her fingers until they bleed.

• • •

Later, I put on my jeans, the blue jeans with the dark bloodstains in the crotch and the silver studs on the pockets, and go to see the shopkeeper. I stand to one side, watching the black mark on his face move as he sips his tea. Now that he is in front of me, I don’t know what to say to him. All the words have been bled out of me.

He laughs at me. What can you expect? he says.

What did I expect? There are rules, even in a village like this. There are ways of doing things. I thought I’d be too proud to shed a tear in front of the shopkeeper, but now I find that I am crying, the tears splashing on the concrete floor. He shakes his head, disgusted.

And then I run.

I run home, tearing off the soiled jeans, wrapping my thick skirts around me. Past my mother, up to her elbows in flour, with blood on her apron, and past my father, slumped drunk in a chair.

I run to the river, red cold whipping my face. My scarf flies off in the wind and my eyes water and my teeth ache. Along the river’s edge to the trees, and then through the trees, into the forest, my heart leaping against my chest, and my stomach cramping, and my breath empty, until I reach the crown of red berries, and I stop, gasping cold air. This is the last time that I’ll see this place. My mind stretches out around the forest and snaps back again with every breath.

My arms and legs are endlessly long, my mouth gapes open to catch my breath. Deep inside my bruises ache, my scars itch, but there is nothing to rub or scratch, just numb limbs and heaving lungs drawing breaths that lift me out over the trees. I can see the forest flying beneath me, its green and black arms embracing, repelling.

I am hungry for mice, and broken wings, and bitter black roots.

 

 

Georgina Bruce’s stories can be found in Strange Horizons and Clockwork Phoenix 3, as well as many other online and print publications, including her own website, where you are always welcome to visit. She lives in a large English city, where it is usually raining, and shares a haunted house with her eccentric sister and several other creatures.


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ISSUE #19

May 2010

FICTION