This story first appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, Jul/Aug 2014.
I HAD THIRTEEN LONG YEARS in the witch’s belly to contemplate what I’d done.
It was dark in her belly, filthy and cold. I never grew accustomed to the constant stench. Although her stomach had distended enough to hold me, there wasn’t much room to do more than creep. I could never get warm. I could never get dry. I could never see more than vague shadows.
I believed her at first that I deserved it, that this was fit punishment for my impertinent thievery of her bread in the market.
But after two or three years of experiencing everything she ate, I realized something: the witch was a carnivore. She never ate bread.
Even knowing this, I still blamed myself for years for one foolish moment at age eight. Because of what she did after, you see.
She knew I was aware of her down there, and she sent me little messages. Although she had swallowed me whole, she tore her other food into chunks so it would not survive the journey. She started with my favorite dog Max and finished with my little sister Mary.
I touched Mary when I was feeling around in the darkness, desperate for something to eat. I was thinking of food — perhaps a cow’s leg or even some accidentally ingested mushrooms — and found instead my sister’s precious little nose and cheek, just as I remembered them. Her wee hand and wrist, torn away from the rest of her body at the forearm. Slick with her own blood.
I could not stop imagining what Mary’s last moments might have been like.
But I had never expected to be with her again. So I sat in the dark with her poor torn arm and held her cheek against mine for one long last moment. My heart was as jagged as her flesh — but it sang, a bit, so glad to be near her again
Of course, I had to let her go, down into the witch’s innards, and my own insides twisted with hatred: hatred for the witch, but even more hatred for myself as my damned will to live forced me on hands and knees to sort through the chunks of flesh and offal for anything palatable.
Sometimes the witch ate shit. Just so I would have to crawl around in it for days. She especially loved to eat dog or pig shit — knowing I would try to separate it from what I ate, knowing I never could — not quite.
Her words were always clear to me, down there; but only once in a while could I make out anyone else’s — muffled as they were by the witch’s putrid flesh and layer upon layer of fetid clothing. Most of the time, I didn’t want to hear the horrific things her sisters were saying, anyway.
But her, I could hear. Every word, clear as a bell. And she knew it.
“You made me do this,” she would say: calm, cold, terrible. “If you hadn’t stolen that bread from me in the market, your dog would not have come looking for me. Your sister would never have followed him. What choice did I have? They discovered me. I could not let them live. It was all your fault.”
And I believed her.
I ran it through, over and over: the moment I sneaked up behind her in the market. The moment my hand shot out, practiced and bold, to snatch at the bread.
An accomplished pickpocket, I thought an old woman’s basket would be easy. A single roll would not be missed.
But she was waiting for me. She was ready. And my thievery, she told me, doomed them to die.
I believed her; I believed her.
I believed the goat was my fault, too.
The fact that she swallowed it whole and alive told me that she had done it all for me.
The poor thing was terrified; I could feel its terror choking both of us and its bony flailing limbs pounding against me in fear and panic as it began to viciously tear at the witch’s belly with its hooves and horns.
I heard her flesh rending, and for a petrified moment in the confused, frantic closeness I thought it was mine.
Pieces of her stomach flew past me (I am ashamed to say I grasped what I could and stuffed it hungrily into my mouth; the witch’s stomach was disgusting and rubbery, tough and slick, but it was fresh) as the goat struggled frantically.
Its hooves flailed, sharp and ragged. Its horns gouged.
Surely it hurt the witch? Surely she —
That was when I learned to fear the witch as much as I hated her.
Her hand reached down her own throat and expertly snapped the goat’s neck in one vicious, astoundingly powerful motion.
The hand and arm withdrew. Before the witch’s throat fully closed again, I saw the goat’s strange, empty expression and wildly improper neck angle. Then I was in darkness again.
She could get me, even down here.
She could do more than torture and mock me; she could kill me.
I shook all over and froze. When I could move again, I crawled to my only companion in the witch’s belly: Rumble.
The witch knew I was in her belly. She knew all about the shit down there. The rotting food. The horror.
But I don’t think she knew about Rumble, although she had created him.
She worked much of the time: creating a mixture of this, a mixture of that. Pounding out roots and focusing hard on the dolls she made for sticking with pins; the earthen vessels mixed in with just a few drops of her enemies’ blood. As she worked, she sucked mindlessly on the end of her braid, and bits of it slid down her throat. Over the decades of her long life, a pile of matted, filthy hair that her stomach acid could not digest slowly grew. The hair clump curled in around itself, forlorn.
I had learned very early on that the witch could hear every word I said. Nothing was safe from her.
So I scooped up Rumble silently and held him close, my heart thudding.
The witch cackled above me. “Thinking about what I might do to you?” she asked. “Girls’ necks are easier to snap than goats’, you know. What are you going to do about that?”
As if there was anything I could do about it.
She laughed again, and then: “Thinking about eating the goat?”
I was, in fact, considering eating the goat. It was the only fresh meat I had seen since she swallowed me. I felt ashamed of my hunger, ashamed that after seeing its terror and the horrible way it died, I would still eat it — like I was some kind of a monster. Rumble thought I should eat it; its flesh no longer did the poor goat any good, he said, and I needed nourishment.
Of course, he didn’t say it. We never used words out loud. But we understood each other.
I ate the goat over the span of several days. Rumble encouraged me to keep trying as I got fuller and fuller. In the end, I couldn’t finish it all, and I let the remainder go before it became rancid.
See? Rumble asked me. Don’t you feel better with some real food in you? See?
Rumble always looked out for me.
The way I got out was Rumble’s idea, actually. He had seen what the goat did, and then opportunity presented itself.
A few years before the goat, she had swallowed broken glass buried deep in a shank of pork that was only slightly rancid. I should have been wary when she sent down something edible, but I tore into it with frantic mouth and fingers.
I dropped the glass. I hurt, and I bled, and my mouth and fingers were torn, and the witch laughed when my blood oozed out into her stomach.
It never occurred to me to hold on to the glass, that it might become useful. It never occurred to me that my existence would be anything but surviving in that belly year after year in the dark and cold, growing slowly like a cancer. I could not see beyond that prison, not even in my imagination. The witch taunted me with it: You will never get out; you will never be free.
Even had I been able to imagine such a thing as freedom, and even if I had thought to plan for an escape, there is no place in a witch’s belly where you can store anything.
She waited several years before she swallowed something sharp again — a few months after the goat. Perhaps she thought it would be a fresh shock.
But if the witch taught me anything, it was never to let my guard down.
I was ready for this one: a razor blade, buried deep in the rib cage of a dog. A vicious blade as long as my hand, its handle broken jaggedly off. Rumble had warned me, told me something like this would be coming. Told me what I should do when it slipped down her filthy throat.
When I found it, I hesitated. She would expect my blood, already smacking her lips over it. If she didn’t get it, she might grow suspicious. Reach her hand down to snap my neck. But the glass cuts on my lips and hands had grown infected in the dank, filthy darkness.
Where could I afford an infection?
I decided to slice my smallest toe. If it fell off, I would survive.
I sliced my toe, and as the witch was cackling in triumph at the taste of my blood, I held the blade close in my hand.
I did not know this, yet, but I do now: there is only one way a witch can die. She must be smothered. Flames sometimes work, as they rob the air around her of oxygen; drowning, perhaps, although she can swim hard and fast and break nearly impossible bonds. But for this one mode of death, witches are immortal. They can even find their severed heads and reattach them, if necessary.
I am glad I did not know this as I crouched, building up my courage. I am glad that I believed the process of my leaving would kill her. I would never have summoned the courage to do it otherwise.
I clutched the handle of that razor tightly as the witch lay sleeping in the sun. The broken handle bit into my palm.
She always liked to sunbathe — the only type of bathing she ever did. She removed all of her clothing and stretched every bit of her skin out on the grass for the sun to find and sink into.
The sun created a rosy glow inside her belly.
The light shone more brightly through her flesh where the frantic goat had struggled. The sun reached out to me to tell me what to do.
I took a deep breath.
I gathered Rumble under my left arm.
I would be decisive, I told myself. Swift. Cut my way out before she could reach down and stop me.
I held the razor in my hand. I paused.
The witch rolled to her side.
What if she rolled onto her belly?
In a panic, I lashed out with the razor.
Things became very disjointed after that.
Her flesh was, just as I remembered, rubbery. The razor was sharp and effective. I tore through the stomach in seconds, and the witch began to roar.
I slashed and slashed. She staggered to her feet.
The work got much harder. In the confusion, screaming, and panic, Rumble said calmly, “You have reached the abdominal wall. Use more pressure.”
There was far less blood than I had expected; the witch was very old.
“No!” The witch shouted. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to— ” And then came a horrified, wordless howl of agony as I slashed through the dense, ropy muscle, sawing desperately, clinging to Rumble and fighting my way out of her body.
She would be dead, soon, I thought.
I pushed against the fetid, slimy walls of her stomach. I fought toward the sun.
The witch was holding her belly now, staggering down a muddy lane, her shrieking growing louder and louder.
The sun blinded me.
Still slashing, I took a deep breath of the outside air.
I began to cough.
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be!” bellowed the witch. “You stupid little piece of shit. You can’t even kill me right!”
I was out. Lying naked in the blinding sun, covered in slick gastric juices and the remains of her last repulsive meal. Retching, choking, coughing.
The witch fell to her knees.
She would die now, I thought. She would die now, and I would have a moment to adjust my eyes to the light. Take whatever of her clothes were not too rotten to wear. Run. Find something to eat.
A powerful hunger was filling me like nothing I had ever felt before.
But she didn’t die.
“You worthless, stupid, weak little girl!” she screamed. “Look at me! Look what you’ve done to me!”
I couldn’t quite see — there was a golden haze over everything, and the witch was a dark smear: smaller than I had thought she would be.
I was so terribly hungry.
I turned to run — to find food, any kind of food — and she grasped me by the arm with astonishing force. Smaller than I remembered, yes, but twice as strong.
A hole in her belly the size of a young woman had not weakened her.
Despite my slick skin, she kept her grip tight as she dragged me back into her cottage.
Inside, it was dark.
I could see.
My fear struggled mightily with my hunger. I knew I had to get away from her. I was terrified. But I risked a glance around the hut to find something — anything — that I might be able to eat.
It was empty but for dust and bottles, sheaves of paper and rotten-looking plants hanging above a noxious-smelling cauldron boiling over the fire.
Then she leaned over me, her horrible, twisted, furious, and agonized face inches from mine, flesh contorting as her jaw unhinged and she prepared to swallow me again, her pale blue eyes leaping back and forth between mine in frenzied rage.
I remembered the razor in my hand.
After all I had just done, gouging out her eyeballs was nearly easy.
“You made me do this,” I heard myself saying coldly. “This is all your fault.”
The witch howled again, hands freeing my arm and rising to her eyes; I turned and ran away from her into the dizzying sun, her eyeballs still clutched tightly in my hand. I could not let her take them back; she would only come after me.
I staggered along as far as I could, stark naked, bent over in agony around the powerful hunger in my gut, and in no shape for running after a lifetime of crouching inside a witch’s belly. I am not sure how far I got; I had no idea if I was headed for a town or further into the wild. I knew nothing beyond my pulse hammering in my throat, which was raw from my harsh breathing, and that I was breathing fresh, clean air, and that I was free, free, free.
I AM SO CLEAN, NOW. I shower twice a day and I don’t care how dry my skin gets. I scrub and scrub; I wash my hair. I floss and floss and brush and brush the teeth I have.
“You’re not much to look at, are you?” the woman of the house asked me when I approached her, seeking work. She seemed pleased by my torn lip, twisted always into a sneer, my stubborn jawline, my haphazard stolen clothing; my angular hungry look: broad shoulders, flat chest, wild, unkempt hair — skin utterly, starkly white, with a strange acid-scoured cast to it.
Her husband had a roving eye.
“Maggot,” she called me, in honor of my white skin. She hired me on the spot to clean house and help in the stables. I had no references. I had no equipment. I did not pretend to have experience.
But I was cheap. I was ugly. And I didn’t care what the work was. I didn’t even mind being called Maggot. At least I had a name.
The first thing I did was to find the meat grinder in the kitchen.
The witch’s eyes watched me blankly as they fell into the hopper; I knew she could still see me.
I was glad the blades had been sharpened recently; as it was, I had to find a wooden spoon and press their rubbery toughness down into the blades.
If I had known more about meat grinders, I would have realized that I needed to add something else: a hunk of beef, a chicken breast. As it was, the eyes rolled around and around in the hopper as I shoved them down with the spoon and only became chopped up enough to fit out of the bottom after repeated turnings.
I fed the scraps of her eyes to the chickens beside the barn; they pecked them up hungrily.
It felt so good to move: to lift and carry, to feel the sun on my face. It took a long time for me to understand what to do with the money, with people, with the work. I slept in the tiny room under the eaves that they gave me, sharing with another woman who kept her distance and only worked in the house. I ate in the kitchen. I shared the cold shower in the stable with the other grooms and the gardener. I was odd odd odd, and the kinder help did not want to call me by my new name.
I did everything. Although at first I was inexpert and clumsy, slow and sloppy, I mucked out the barn — horse manure was almost pleasant compared to what the witch ate; I didn’t mind it at all. I plaited the horses’ manes and tails for competition and show, getting better and better at it. I scrubbed the hall in the big house, the toilets. I washed the laundry. I learned how to sew as soon as possible so that I could put a special pocket into my skirts in which to carry Rumble, always keeping him near.
I watched the other grooms and the maids, and I did what they did. I grew stronger. I grew far more adept with the rhythm of the broom, the scrape of the brush.
I was in service. Everything in the big house and the stable was clean clean clean.
But every night, the dreams came.
The house, sprawling and confused, was filled with mold and filth, darkness and cold.
In my dreams, she had taken over my place of refuge. The shower rained down blood and liquid shit on me. The toilet overflowed. My cleaning supplies were riddled with iron filings and gritty, hay-filled globs of rancid meat. I could not clean enough. There was no escape from the slimy walls and crumbling furniture.
I was shitting on a pile of goat entrails. I was trying to find a place to sleep that was not so covered in rotting flesh and offal that I couldn’t lie down, but my efforts yielded nothing but an even thicker coating of putrid slime on my hands and arms.
At times, I dreamed that her hand reached down into her belly the way it had for that goat, and I heard the dull snap of my neck and felt her ice cold fingers around my throat.
I never had the razor in those dreams. I could never get away.
But then I awoke, shaking. And the air was pure and I was clutching Rumble — who was by then dry and sweet — close to my heart. I was in my clean bed under the eaves with the sun pouring over the horizon, filling the room with comforting warm light.
I am not there anymore, I gasped to myself in relief. I am here. I am safe.
WHEN SHE CAME FOR ME, she came as all witches do: from the forest. I could feel her; she was a wall of seething dread, approaching from the opposite direction from which I had fled.
She had been circling in on me, patiently.
The Woman was having a fancy dinner party and masked Bohemian ball, with a “real live gypsy fortune-teller.” She had been particularly hard on the rest of the staff about cleanliness the day or two before (there was no possible way for me to clean any more vigorously than I always did), and the house had been full of cooks, florists, floor-waxers. White gloves and uniforms and shining brass buttons.
Of course, I was not to serve. I was too hideous to be seen.
I didn’t mind; I still had no idea how one was supposed to act with other people. And I was able to watch safely from behind the distant door of the stable as the witch strode up the front steps, glittering in a flimsy costume that looked nothing like the gray and dun she had been wearing when I tore myself free: colorful scarves sewn with gold coins and a large gold earring in one ear. Her approximation of how the wealthy might imagine a ‘gypsy,’ I was certain.
She moved with enormous strength and purpose. Fluidly, as if she were a much younger woman who could see where she was going.
I felt as if I had grown roots into the ground and my belly lurched down toward them. I could not move. I could not breathe. My heart pounded and an icy pain shot from my gut to my temple. I was going to vomit, or shit.
And then, oddly, I was filled again with an agonizing hunger that pierced my fear with astounding force.
At the door of the house, as the butler was stuttering at her to use the side door like the rest of the help, she gathered up her skirts around her and turned her face directly toward me.
She smiled slowly: a horrible, satisfied, agonizing grin around her three remaining teeth. I could see into her puckered, empty eye sockets. I was going to faint. I was going to fall to the earth from terror.
She turned back, scornfully pushed past the anxious and furious butler as if he were a vapor, and the house swallowed her.
What happened next I had no more control over than I might a sneeze or a dull, wracking cough.
I waited until the laughter and music from the party began to soften, to fade — after several carriages and motorcars had pulled up to the gracious entrance and pulled away with their glittering, laughing cargo. Until I was fairly certain all of the “fortune-telling” had ended.
I waited until I saw her leave — again, defiantly, through the front door — and I watched her stride back into the woods, moving through the dark as if it were broad daylight.
I removed my uniform then and tucked Rumble into my secret wall niche that no one else knew about, for safekeeping. I covered myself in horse manure to hide my scent.
Here I was, again: Cold. Covered in excrement. Naked. Terrified.
But I had to know what she was doing here. I had to be ready for whatever she planned for me, I told myself, as if I were not being dragged toward the forest like a hound on a scent.
I had my wits about me enough to approach from downwind, relieved that the witch had already started a fire — I could smell the smoke from it and whatever wretched filth she was cooking over its embers for her supper.
I crept close enough to hear her voice, but kept far enough away not to be heard myself. Who was she talking to? Was she reciting a spell?
I hid under a rotting log, covered in lichens and odorous mushrooms. I was shit and rot and mushrooms, I told myself. She would never scent me.
“Did you see her?” asked a quietly slithering voice in the dark.
I felt cold all over. She was not alone. And where there were two witches, there were always more: there would be thirteen of them, all told.
The fire shifted and crackled as I struggled not to cry out at the realization of exactly how outnumbered I was.
“I can’t see anything any more,” the witch said, in a tone I might have mistaken for pride in anyone else. “She plucked my eyes out, remember?”
I expected her associate to cackle smugly, but she remained silent.
“I smelled her,” said the witch finally. “I smelled her and felt her. She is definitely here.”
“What is she doing here?” asked one hag whose voice I remembered from my years in the witch’s belly: it was high and whining, like a squeaky hinge. “Why isn’t she coming after you?”
“I don’t understand it,” the witch said finally. “She surpasses everything I could have possibly imagined; she tore me open for her selfish escape, and then she just left me to live.”
“There, there,” said Squeaky Hinge. “She won’t disappoint. She will kill you spectacularly.”
I froze. Kill her?
“She won’t,” said Slither. “I told you that you took her too late. She’d already been loved. She was too human. You never listen to me.”
“None of us picks our daughters,” the witch said wearily. “Why must you say such things? She came when she came. I took her then.”
A long silence. The fire groaned when someone threw on another log. Bones crunched as the witches continued eating.
“I carried her for thirteen years!” wailed the witch into the silence.
Tsking sounds; clucking.
“I thought my mother carried me a long time,” whispered the Hoarse One. “Six years. That was the longest any of us were carried. How did you even hold someone that large?”
“I had no choice, did I?” growled the witch. “The cowardly little bitch refused to rise up.”
If I had a reaction to hearing again that I was a cowardly bitch, I kept it hidden deep in my gut. I didn’t move.
“She freed herself anyway,” sneered Slither. “Not so cowardly now, is she?”
A confusing rabble of voices after this comment, all raised in outrage.
“Would you want to live forever, hag?” One voice rose above the rest. “Would you want to drag your dry bones over the face of this earth until the embers of the sun fall into Hell because your idiot of a daughter didn’t have the decency to rise up and choke you as was her duty?”
“It is no joking matter,” agreed Slither, sounding mildly contrite — but only mildly. And then, in what must have been meant to be a comforting manner, “Perhaps she is devising an unusually horrible way to do it!”
“Perhaps,” said Squeaky Hinge, “she seeks to avoid ever becoming a witch at all.”
This clearly unthinkable statement was met with stunned silence.
The fire popped.
“Well, witchling?” Squeaky Hinge called into the forest, high and sharp. “What will it be?”
I felt like the stupidest girl on earth.
I lay still, as I had when a very young child who slept in dry bedding, imagining that the monsters hiding in the dark around me would not get me if I didn’t move.
The witches around the fire began to cackle.
“She is still afraid!” one howled.
For some reason, this struck the others as impossibly hilarious.
Their laughter pressed into a single, angry spot in my belly. It propelled me up from my hiding place, through the tangle of branches between myself and their company, and into their circle of light.
A hush. They all stared at me, except for, of course, my witch. She kept her face lowered to the earth. I felt the other twelve around me and their eyes on my face. I felt their keen interest. I felt their confusion and, most of all, a deep hunger.
“I am not,” I snarled, “a witchling.”
“No?” smirked a witch. “Then why do you stand, face scarred, skin hardened, unnaturally keen sense of smell and night vision, naked and covered in shit and mushrooms, in a circle of witches in the middle of a forest, ravenous?”
Her voice was warm with laughter. Her eyes were hard, and deep in their stoniness, I saw something else.
Fear. That is what I felt from all of them. Fear.
I stepped farther into the ring of light, even though my legs were jelly and I shook so hard I could scarcely take a breath.
“I am not,” I said again, ashamed of how much my voice trembled, “a witchling.”
“Of course you are,” snorted a witch with fingers like tree roots and a scar down her face so deep it nearly obliterated her nose. “What do you think this one here was playing at, all those years?” She gestured almost contemptuously toward my witch. “How do you think we all came to be?”
I searched the twisted, acid-scoured faces that peered at me across the fire. I could see the truth in them. They had all been kidnaped girls. They had all once been like me.
“What is wrong with you?” my witch snarled. “I did everything a mother should do. I hardened up your soul and your body. I told you everything you needed to know. I mocked you; I tortured you. I turned you into the strongest, most horrible thing I could. Why did you run away like a frightened hare?”
Suddenly the witch looked very tired.
Exhausted. Crumbling dust.
What came out of my mouth surprised me. “What was I meant to do?” I asked my tormentor, my witch, my mother.
“Slay me, of course,” she said, as if this were perfectly self-evident. “And eat me.”
The witches around her nodded.
My hunger suddenly explained, my stomach twisted and growled. I felt that old hatred for her churn through my body. I was shaking with rage, now.
“If cutting through your belly did not kill you,” I snarled, deep and low with my scarred throat and tongue, “I don’t know what would. And if you think I would eat your stinking corpse after you were gone, you are the one who is a stupid, useless girl.”
The witch rose to her feet and moved into my face so quickly that I did not have time to cower.
“You have no idea what you are saying,” she said. “You always were a dull one. Stupid little pickpocket. Every witch, for generations, has risen through her mother’s throat to gain freedom, choking her to death. Every one has eaten her flesh when she emerged and gained the knowledge of generations of witches. You are the only one to fail in this. Your stupidity and laziness are surpassed only by your cowardice.”
The witch was goading me, I saw. She wanted me to give in to my urge to wrap my fingers around her throat, to push my fist down into her trachea. To end her life for good.
And, God forgive me, I let her.
For every time she called me a stupid, lazy slag, I pressed down. For every time she told me it was my fault, I tightened my fingers. For every stinking repulsive horrific maggot-infested bit of rancid meat, I bored deeper. For every bit of broken glass. For the stupid, helpless little goat. For my sister.
She fell back, not fighting at first, but eventually her animal urge to survive took over. She lay on her back, gasping, struggling. Bucking underneath me as I mercilessly pressed down. Years of scrubbing floors, of wrangling horses, of carrying huge loads of laundry up and down the servants’ back stairs to the wash house. Years of nightmares. Years of pain. Years of darkness and loneliness and shame. All of it had given me enormous physical strength.
But there was more.
The power of my rage poured up my bare feet from the earth itself into my belly — coursing through my blood, my flesh, my bones: filling me with deadly, calm force, roaring wild within me like a vengeful, swollen river.
The drumming of her heels on the ground ceased. Her head fell back. Her heart was still and silent.
The power drained from me back into the earth and I collapsed to my knees in the dirt.
I looked up at the circle of witches around us, all leaning in hungrily.
“I am not going to eat her,” I whispered, panting, even as my hunger threatened to turn my body inside out with its longing. “I meant that.”
One witch grinned, toothless and menacing. “Then we will,” she said. “We will inherit her power.”
I looked around the circle of faces warily. I knew too much to let any of them have an ounce more power than they already did. I knew too much to allow such a thing. And I was beginning to understand how little choice I had in the matter, anyway.
With the last strength I had left, I seized her by her leather belt and heaved her body onto the fire. “If I am going to devour a witch,” I said grimly as her flimsy costume singed and burned, “I’m going to cook her and eat her like a civilized person.”
I do not know how I was able to roast and eat her entire body in one night. I do not know how I managed to keep every scrap away from the other witches. But I did. Wearily. Miserably. Gagging. A dank, horrible creature covered in filth, crouching over her kill to protect it from the horde of scavengers circling around her.
At last, it was done. I sat back on my haunches and felt the memories thunder through my mind.
I had her memories, and her mother’s memories, and her mother’s memories. Like the remembrance of one life, these memories thickened, slowed, trickled away the further back they went. Like the remembrance of one life, the memories bowed me down. Hunched next to the fire, the cackle of the witches’ voices vague and distant, I crawled away into the darkness beneath the weight of such a history.
I remembered my witch and how she hurt and mocked me. I remembered why she did it. I remembered it from my point of view, and from hers. I remembered how her mother did the same to her, and her grandmother to her mother. I remembered all of it, and although to this day I still do not remember who the first witch was or where or when she lived, I remembered how we all began: in the dark, trapped, terrified.
Again and again and again.
Now, like all of them, I was a murderer and a cannibal.
Now, I was a witch.
A CENTURY AND A HALF LATER, I keep Rumble in a place of honor in my clean, orderly camper, which has an excellent water heater for long, soapy showers. He nestles in a well-oiled wooden box into which I have carved beautiful patterns, tucked up lovingly with all of my herbal supplies, so that I see where he is every day.
He has stopped talking to me, as all childhood dolls do. But even silent and still, even monstrous in his own way, he helps me to remember how in the dark and the cold, so long ago and so far away, I made a friend.
The years have become a tired blur before my eyes. I am tired of living. Tired of surviving. The power I inherited, which has always felt like a yoke, now bears down on me unbearably.
And then I see her: my daughter.
I am sitting behind the table at an art fair, selling my pots and trinkets in front and my spells and satchels from the back.
She strides up to my table fearlessly. Cocky. Filled with scorn for her tired mother behind her, who is calling her to stop running, to slow down. Her mother is pregnant with her little brother, whom she already loathes. She is planning how to stick him with pins after he is born, when her mother isn’t looking. Her mother is tired and has swollen ankles and is already regretting bringing a three-year-old to such a crowded fair.
This girl is far younger than I was: still in the animal stage of life when people are abstractions and mother means “the one who gives me things when I demand them.”
The girl looks me over, hands on her hips.
“You’re ugly,” she says, pocketing a small figurine of a cat, as if I am not looking directly at her.
She cocks her head to one side, staring. Laughing, a little.
She is already tough. Solid. Mean through and through as only a three-year-old girl can be, but somehow more. She looks like she can throw a punch and take a punch. Like she can hold more power than I and all my mothers before me — wear these memories and this power effortlessly, like a warm, well-worn coat, tailored to her exact specifications.
I can feel she is mine; feel it deep down in my bones. I can feel my jaw beginning to unhinge, my body bending down toward her.
“Clarissa,” her mother calls wearily from far away behind her.
“Well?” she demands of me, oblivious to her danger, taunting me with the stolen figurine in her pocket
Someone her mother knows comes over to ask how the pregnancy is going, and instead they discuss Clarissa in worried tones: heads together, backs to us.
I lean closer. I can smell my daughter’s bravery, her toughness. Her bravado covering up the thin spike of fear that is wending its way through her belly. Her soft skin that will toughen up soon enough.
I can see, laid out before me, her tempering: the nails I will swallow, the terrible things I will tell her about herself. I will take all of that fire and pluck and turn it down and inward, deep into her belly, until she feels she is nothing; until it distills and grows hotter and more powerful and surges out in a scorching rage that scours everything in its path. I can see her emerging from my throat, effortlessly killing me. She will not disappoint. She will know exactly what to do. She will be a witch beyond all reckoning.
I lean closer and closer. She stands staring up at me, openmouthed now. Frozen.
I can already see my blissful impending death. Her hard, clear eyes as she emerges and seizes the world by its throat. My jaw is almost totally unhinged now; the processes of my stomach begun: stretching to hold something too large for its actual dimensions. There is nothing I can do; there is nothing she can do. We are going to make a new witch.
But I inhale: sharp, strong, wild. My fierce power fills me: that grounding, deep, astonishing power that roars up from the earth to fill my belly: mine. Not the witch’s. I feel fifty years old again. I am wild and hard and enormous and strong, from my center to every cell in my body.
I knock over the table in front of her: pots and figurines break all around us, rain over her like hail, like the silt in a tornado. Everyone turns to stare. She stands still, arms at her sides, watching me. I take another deep breath, collect every bit of strength I have ever had. Bear down into the power filling me from deep within. Howl out the word with more power and fierceness than I had ever known possible. I am a wailing tornado of grief, regret, rage, and fire:
And she does: shoots off on sturdy, angry legs, back toward her terrified mother.
I turn my back on her. I feel my jaw return slowly to the place it will now occupy for aeons. I feel my stomach shrink. I feel my heart shrivel.
Trembling, I pick up a broom and begin to sweep up the broken remains of my wares.