The land was dark and hard. A grayish, funereal light descended on the craggy, bone rock that split the clinging lichen- a sickly yellow, a pallid green. It was witch land, they said. The trees tangled their leeching roots in the precarious rime of earth that blew across the rock and piled upon each other for life. Sweet grew up here, she knew the lying foot holds and the twists the mountains made to trip the feet and tumble the unwary traveller into a breathless fall- over the edge and never seen again. The snows piled about her grandmother’s home, sugar coatings that were insidious, drifts under the door chilling the soul of her family, of the witch people that called the mountains home.
Sweet was just a child, however, and perhaps it was the life long exposure to the evil chill of the land that turned them. She left, young and pretty and assured that she could not possibly go bad- too young, too pretty to be a witch. Down she descended, past the thin air of her home, past the thick, wolf forests, past the clouds that she’d always thought were the edge of the world, and emerged from the soul sapping dark to a bright green quilt of pasture and prosperity.
She sought a home with the villagers, small and pale though she was, and hoped for a better life for herself. She met a young sugar cane farmer in the lush green fields and with a look she seduced the boy. They met there in the sun and searing flats, so different to home, and soon it was clear that they were in love. One autumn day he married Sweet, and she dressed in the white of the snows that cloaked her home and as she spoke the sealing words that bound her in this bright new world a spiny finger of chill reached out from the mountains and laid the tip upon her. She looked away from their looming monstrosity, refusing to acknowledge that blood thin grip, and slid a hand into her lover’s.
The villagers knew a witch when they saw one. They knew the warts might not be there, the teeth might be sparkling white and the hair full and glossy- but it was still a witch. They grumbled and warned Sweet’s husband against her. When a favoured calf died or a child was stillborn they blamed her. No one would touch the sugar her husband harvested, and no food was bought that came from her kitchen. Soon the farm fell into disrepair, and the clothes Sweet wore were tattered and old.
Well into the second year of their marriage Sweet became with child. Her husband rejoiced, his pink cheeks swollen with pride, and Sweet merely smiled and patted her womb. The child, first of her children born on the plains, would bind her there more than ever. Still, in the dark winter’s nights she heard the howling of the wolves and the chill mourning shrieks of the wind in her mountains and felt the call of home pull at her.
She grew plump with the seasons, and frosted her body with her husband’s produce. Sugar, her husband said, was the best thing to line the womb. The child would come out as kindly and beautiful as any child could be, if only sugar were introduced as early as possible. Sweet sat in front of the huge vat of white, sparkling shards and forced doses of spoonfuls down into her gullet. Soon she came to hate the stink that named her. Sweet, she said, is an apt name for me- I’m so full of this foul powder than I’ll never be sour again.
The child was born in the summer, when the air was sere and the land overflowing. Never an uglier sight had the villagers seen. Lumpy and bulbous, the thing was a mass of maggot white flesh that struggled weakly for breath and refused even his mother’s milk in favor of sugary concoctions. The villagers said, burn it! The villagers cried, abomination! The villagers raised their hating eyes that accused, the woman has borne the child of the devil!
I’m not a witch, Sweet told herself. And though her son might be ugly, his soul and blood were of the plains. She cared for the child despite her misgivings, and loved it despite its ugly exterior.
However, in the winter two girl-children died in their beds with no reason apparent. The villagers cried for blood- and they blamed the misfortune on Sweet and her small family. Storming the snow drift fields, the villagers hid their faces and beset Sweet’s home and dragged the three of them into the night. The husband they struck until unconscious, and the child they beat until whimpering and blue. Then, holding the weeping Sweet between them, they lay the baby into the snow and forced her to listen as the howling of it grew quieter, and the ice of the dark stole from him his life.
Oh what a thing, to witness the death of your child at the hands of others. Sweet woke in the morning to find her husband crippled and her child dead- only ashes remained where the villagers had burnt the corpse.
Sweet struggling on, weeping half the time and raging the other. With her son gone the milk in her breasts was overflowing, her pain and heartache equally unendurable. The winter storms were blowing too fiercely to venture out to scavenge, and the injury on her husband too great to allow him to hunt. Down from the mountains the miasma swarmed, trying to pull Sweet back into the sky. In weak effort, Sweet fed her husband from her breast and killed the rats that took refuge in her walls for their meat. Dull her eyes grew, and bracken her hair. But, still lovely and fair of face was Sweet.
In the spring they both still lived. Her husband was weak, too ill to rise from their bed. Sweet knew that no more crops would be harvested, their small supply of sugar all they had left. She grew resigned to their fate.
A Spring Fair came one golden morning and brought men and women to plant the seed and wreath the flowers. A May Pole was erected in the village green, and Sweet saw the happiness of the villagers as maids came to dance it.
That evening, lying curled by her husband’s side, Sweet thought on her life in the green pastures. No good had come from leaving her home, and she could feel the chill of her mountain core poisoning her, turning her bad no matter how far she ran. She looked at the pained face of her husband and, ignoring her heart that said no, she left the bed and took up the bag of sugar. The villager’s stores would supply the rest.
The next day, standing unobtrusively amongst the tables of food and drink in the fair, a perfectly made stand of gingerbread men formed ranks. Sugary icing drew buttons and clothes, hair and eyes. The little smiling ginger faces called out to the people in the fair and, one by one, they were eaten. The villagers, thinking that the men of the fair had brought them, ate them. The men of the fair, thinking it a gift from the villagers, ate them. One gingerbread man for every man, woman and child.
From her shadowy nook around a bend in the houses Sweet watched as arms were chomped and heads severed to feed their awful, red cheeked faces. She saw the sugar dissolve on their tongues and smiled a cold smile.
She waited for hours, until with the night, the awful night, they one by one were sickened. The adults may awaken, she thought, but no child in the village would survive such a curse.
She left them screaming and moaning for help, left them to return to her husband’s side. Over the day, however, his condition had worsened and now a weak, burning fever was upon him. Sweet knew he couldn’t survive much longer.
“Are you in pain, husband?” She asked.
“Yes.” He moaned.
“Our child is gone, husband. Our food is depleted, the fields all dry. Do you see the empty fields, husband?”
“Yes,” he sobbed.
“Do you wish to die, husband?” She closed her eyes and hugged herself. Grief veiled her in widow’s black.
“Yes,” he whispered.
She packed a small bundle to sit by the door. She went to him, curled up next to him and cried. Then, in gentle resignation and a sweet goodbye kiss, she lowered a pillow over his face. He didn’t struggle, which made it worse. A quiet minute passed as his fists curled and his feet drummed. Tears tracked her face but a fierce, mad look was in her eyes. The movement stopped. Sweet straightened his beloved body, her trembling fingers dusting off fever sweat and grime. Their marriage bed became his funeral bier. She carried herself off into the night, leaving a kindling draping from the huge potbellied oven, and allowed her husband and his home to rage into the night.
When the villagers came, days later, with tears and bad intentions, the house was no longer there. They left the fields fallow and salted the earth, hoping no lingering curse would remain- but no child that ventured near Sweet’s home survived long after.
The years were cruel to Sweet. She could never return to the mountain passes, afraid the soft soils had entered her heart, and she could never live long in the pasture lands for the mountains held a firm grip and no villager would trust her. Beyond the pasture lands, well away from other people, Sweet retreated. She built her home in a forest dark and dismal, with thin, talking wolves and dark melancholy. She found once a red cloak on her brief excursions, which she used as a table cloth now, and another time a golden egg that she used to buy sugar and ginger when she took a long journey to the nearest market.
She hobbled now, an old crone, her eyes beady and peering, her hair a mess of harsh strands. The cap on her head was an unwashed grey and her apron stained- a strange reddish brown, best not to ask.
The nearby bear family, who had given her some little girl clothes and a blond curly wig to dress her scarecrow, had told her of the family of a woodcutter that had entered the forest to find refuge. They had two little children, a boy and a girl, the Papa Bear said. And it was his second wife, so you can be assured she’ll get rid of the brats as soon as she can.
Sweet hated the villagers. She hated people coming into her new home, bringing their hateful families and painful memories. But mostly Sweet hated the look of the woodcutter’s axe- if he cut down the forest, the last place she could live happily would disappear.
With a nod to the bear, Sweet left their by-chance chat and made the long walk home. The house came into view, the thick, soft walls of a rounded confectionary cottage, the bright sparkle of a pink and white marzipan roof. Smiling, she patted the tempting, ginger creation and entered by the chocolate door.
The children would come soon enough, she knew. She had only to wait.
By Danielle K. Day
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