Fantasy Literary Fiction Romance witch

Witch in the Woods

By James Van Pelt
Oct 30, 2019 · 1,819 words · 7 minutes

Photo by Halanna Halila via Unsplash.

From the author: A young pot smith yearns for more than the world of his village can give him after a witch tells him, "You are a song."

            I met a witch in the woods who said, “You are a song.”

            We have village, fields, farms and then the road that comes through woods and exits into trees.  The forest marks our border.  Within our seasons roll.  The village celebrates planting, the summer solstice and harvest before winter comes, and wolves.  Viny paths lead woodsmen into forest.  Children carry baskets, venture only for berries, mushrooms and herbs.  They don’t go far, not so deep that they can’t see the village.  Sometimes one does not come back.  Trees whisper and creak.  They speak to themselves.  Their roots make paths rough.  Black squirrels run away, dash behind trunks.  They are a bushy tail vanishing into the leaves.

            I met a witch in the woods who said, “You are a song.”

            Trees speak through my window at night.  Across moon-washed grass, beyond split-rail fence, rustle whispering words.  The witch has many voices, I think, the ones I don’t hear during days when my hands are heavy with clay, when village women bring me pots to mend or shop for new ones.  Unmarrieds try conversation.  They flirt behind laughter.  Stand too close.  Touch my arm.  It’s a lonely job surrounded by people who talk too loud, who drown out trees’ language.  I can’t hear witch’s voice when the fire under kiln crackles or I’m painting designs onto clay.  Only at night when a leaf-touched breeze comes from the forest, caressing my chest with its cool hands. 

            A witch lives in the forest and calls to me.

            My best cups and bowls I pull aside, glaze purple.  I leave them in the woods for the witch.

            A path among trees is a thousand doors opening and closing.  Leaves smell rich underfoot, fertile, fecund.  Round-topped, flesh-colored mushrooms push up.  A tree blocks what is behind until it reveals another tree, or a dusty sunbeam that slipped through the canopy, or a rosebush, startling in its color.  The path turns, and a buck stares unafraid, standing, alert, its antlers a jagged crown.  It sniffs, then leaps from sight, crashing through underbrush.

            Walks in the woods are for searching, far from the village, beyond humanity.  Paths cross paths.  Leaves hide stars.  Nothing blacker than deep woods at night.  Woods are for getting lost.  Woods are for finding witches.

            I met a witch in the woods who said, “You’re a song.”

            Far along a trail, stone bridge crosses a stream that runs strong, its water white and foamy.  Who can tell who built the bridge?  Tightly fitted grey stones wear splotchy green and orange lichens.  Mist fills the air, the cleanest smell in the world.  I saw the bridge once before in the gloaming.  A dusty marble moonbeam speared it, but night fell and night is no time to be in the woods, so I returned to the village.

            I couldn’t find the bridge for years, no matter how far I hiked.  Once, I stood on a cliff overlooking an ocean.  Another time the path rode a long, rocky slope where trees thinned until I stood next to a ruined castle wall ten times taller than me.  Inside, vines gripped the fallen tower, covered stone steps that lead to an open-roofed hall.  At one end on a raised dais in the sun, a great chair still ruled.  A bird built a nest in the seat.  Two empty violet shells rested with one unbroken.  The birds had flown.  I took the unhatched egg, wrapped it carefully and have carried it since.

            I met a witch in the woods who said to me, “You’re a song.”

            I found her on the bridge.  She said, “You’re a song.”

            Yearning is the human heart.  The farmer yearns for rain and the sun.  A child yearns for ripe berries, for friends and play and dessert after dinner.  The musician yearns for perfect notes to rise from her flute.  But for me, I yearn without focus.  Forming pots on the wheel, molding the clay, kicking the wheel round and round, creating a hollow space in the middle.  My pots, like me, waiting to be filled.

            Trees hide and reveal.  Forest walking means seeing what’s close and glimpsing what’s far.  Empty as a yearning pot I hiked the path, wine skin dangling, bread in my pack.  The witch walked beyond the nearest trees twenty yards away.  I saw her for a moment, in green and brown with a leafy garland.  She looked at me and leaned as if I was what she had been seeking, but I slipped, lost sight, and when I recovered, she was gone.  Brush tore my clothes.  Brambles scratched.  Broken deadfall limbs blocked pursuit.  I stood in virgin forest casting about for her.  There was no path.  No place for the witch to have been walking.  She had been there, I know, like I know my yearning.

            I met a witch in the woods who said, “You are a song.”

            Days pass slowly.  Every moment in the village means I am not searching.  Denying my heart.  It is a torture.  Pots and clay and dickering over prices seem thin and tedious and tasteless.  Only the woods have meaning.

            I close my eyes; I see her, more vivid than memory. This is the forest working to join us, village pot smith and woods witch.

            I feel each tree at night, every gnarled branch, every twisted root, every shimmering leaf.  The forest gods, working to bring us together.  It’s oak and elm, yew and poplar, maple and alders and ashes and lindens and willows.  Gods, all of them trying to unite woods and village.

            So I close shop on odd days, wander farther and farther.  I map the paths, but they change.  I saw her again across a clearing.  Waist high daisies filled the open ground, and when I reached the other side, yellow dust covered my pants.  She was not there.

            She said I was a song.  Do I have choruses?  Do I build to a crescendo?  Is there call and response, and are there harmonies?  Certainly I must have a beat.  I must have rhythm.

            I search.  I make purple cups and bowls to leave in hollow logs.  I sleep with a window open to hear trees.

            I met a witch in the woods.

            Forest beasts rule at night.  Claw marks high above my head scar the bark where a bear dug in.  Wolves with red eyes lope along the paths.  Owls feather softly on wing.  Hiking by lamplight is a fool’s errand.  I hold the lamp ahead, the light peeking from the shadow box so as not to blind me.

            Eyes shine left and right and above.  Limbs themselves reach toward me.

            A great pounding shakes the path.  I stop.  Its drum thumps vibrate my feet.  Then I smell the great, warm, animal thing shaking trees, its bellows breath huffing.  My light reveals barrel-sized cloven hooved feet and hairy shins that reach into the darkness.  I imagine it studies me and my tiny lamp before turning back to the woods.  Trees splinter in its path.  Wood shrieks.

            The witch lives with beasts.  She must be mighty indeed and brave.  In my dreams when I see her, she is barefooted.  Strangely, her feet are clean as if she just stepped from water.  She moves like a faun.

            Everything comes back before I meet the witch.

            Deep in the woods, a child carrying a basket runs by.  “Where is my home?” he cries, but he doesn’t stop.

            A wind rustles, and the leaves say my name.  I swear they call my name.

            My gut grips, holding me in its cold hand.   A metal taste coats my tongue.

            The deer I’d seen earlier with its vast antlers watches me pass.

            Then I see the witch walking my direction twenty yards away on a parallel path.  I know I cannot run to her.  There will be no sign.  She will be gone.  A tree eclipses her, and she’s not on the other side.

            Beside the trail, daisies decorate with yellow and black, smelling sweet.

            I catch the cloven-hoofed beast’s smell among wet leaves.

            Hairs stand on my arm.  I am full.  I am bursting.

            I turn a corner and step onto the bridge.  Below, the stream rings like a bell.  The lichen splotched stone is wet with it.  The witch leans over the edge, watching water before she turns.  Her dark hair covers her shoulders, over a green and brown tunic.  She holds a purple cup.

            “I’ve been looking for you,” she says.

            “You have been looking for me?”  Her tunic hangs loosely on her. She smells like wind through a meadow.  She is brown-eyed with purple flecks, like my glaze. 

“For a hundred years.”

            I am afraid.  I am not afraid.  She is stranger than anything I imagine.  She is familiar.  She has been whispering to me at night all my life.

            “I brought a present.”  From its safe spot in my bag, I take the soft cloth wrapped around a treasure, the bird’s egg from the ghost castle.  It is no longer shell.  It has transformed into a purple gem, a perfect egg-shaped amethyst glowing on the cloth.

            She takes the jewel.  Her hands are perfect.  She looks at me.  “I heard you at your potters wheel, shaping earth.  The wheel sings.  Your fingers in the revolving clay, sing.  You are a song.”

            The world turns underfoot.  Her hand caresses mine.  The woods leans in, now, listening, and all that is not graceful drops away.  “I saw you walking.  You’ve spoken to me in dreams.  Your touch . . . I know your touch, but why?  Why have you haunted me?”

            This is my crescendo.  This is the musicians playing, frantic and pounding, stating my themes at once.  Everything led to this moment, her hand on mine, her brown eyes with purple flakes looking into me, her breath like flowers.  She trembles.  Is it possible she feels this too?  Have we been brought to this spot?

            “A witch takes a lover once a hundred years,” she says.  “One chance for a forest child every century.”

            I grip her hand.  “Yes.”

            “Will you be mine?”

            I don’t know.

            I do know.

            The forest is huge.  It contains us all.  Its breaths are our breaths.  Its seasons are our seasons.  Our springs.  Our falls.  Our long winters where all is frozen and summer seems as if it will never come.

            I’m in danger.

            I’m at home.

            I met a witch in the woods, and she said, “You are a song.”

This story originally appeared in Spirit's Tincture.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."