It was a forest where the trees were bare no matter the season.
Summer, winter, fall – there was always an unclothed and bony brown tangle that arched out above and, in many places, would nearly blot out the sun. That’s not to say that the trees were dead, though, as they would invariably reveal a light green flesh if scraped with knife or nail. And the region was warm, a humid area that persisted even through the colder seasons, striking many that passed into it with illness at the sudden change.
Nevertheless, the trees never put forth any noticeable foliage.
As if to emphasize the oddity of it all, there was a very clear border where normal-leafed trees grew. There was grass below the naked trees, but even this was of a fainter green than its healthier-looking counterparts. A bird flying overhead could look for miles and miles and see no signs of habitation. Something flying higher than a bird would see that the region was an irregular shape, a dollop of brownish paint in the middle of otherwise healthy green land, broken partially by a line of red-grey mountains.
When the occasional traveler comes across this strange region of false autumn, they invariably pause for a moment at the threshold before either plunging on ahead as if they could speed through the entirety of it or, if they have heard the tales of this particular neck of the woods, retreat several paces from the interstice between life and seeming death, taking the long way around rather than intruding on the silent and interminably long stretch of wilderness.
And then there was Eugene.
Eugene walks slowly through the wilderness, gaze vacant and eyes turned toward the sky. He is a tall, somewhat skinny man, sandy blonde hair peeking out from under his brown leather hat. The occasional branches that graze his arms or face knock him out of his revery, but only briefly. Thoughts of the long walk being over and reclining into a comfy bed after giving his heavy load of books and paper to the village vendor are only momentarily knocked from his brain by the scratching twigs, the comforting images a persistent lifeline. He does not even break pace when he passes over into the leafless forest, striding on as though nothing had changed. He continues along this way for some time, the afternoon sun sinking down in front of him. His mind turns to thoughts of a clear patch of land upon which to make camp, and it is while his thoughts are of hammering tent posts into the ground that he trips over the wooden rake which lays in his path, stumbling a bit and then turning back to locate the culprit. Finally he seems to take in his surroundings, and raises an eyebrow at the more than a little odd nature that surrounds him. He turns and picks up the rake, a simple structure of round wooden pegs pounded together. He hefts it and turns around again, taking note of the brown blotch that can be seen up ahead between the smooth grey-brown boughs. As he approaches it becomes clear that it is a tent of varying shaded and sized pieces of leather, misshapen and lumpy thanks to its haphazard construction, ropes strung from branch to branch holding up some parts and others secured by stakes hammered through the material and into the ground. The pieces are many and stitched together, the shades of brown blending into each other from far away but more distinguishable up close. A faint trail of smoke lazes up from the center of the tent into the grey sky. There does not appear to be an opening into the tent on the side from which he approaches, but as he circles around the construct, a gap between the flaps can be seen and it is into this void that he calls out.
“Hello! You dropped your rake.” He waits a moment, leaning over to see if he can discern anything in the darkness of the tent, but all he can see is a small fire, the smoke of which seems determined to explore the tent before making its egress, parting around the dark grey metal kettle suspended above its flames. Eugene extends the rake, using teeth of it to pull back the flap a bit further. “Hello? Anyone in there?” There is still no answer, nor is there any sign of activity. “Guess I’ll just leave this- ”
“HELLO, who are YOU?” A shrill, somewhat gurgle-y voice erupts from behind him and he jumps, spinning around and holding the rake diagonal-wise across his front. The old woman is half his height, grey and black-streaked hair bound in a tight bun at the back and with various twigs and shoots stuck through it. Her garb is similar to her abode, a patchwork of leather from several different animals that looks as though the stitching has been recently renewed, and she carries a sack upon her back filled with plant life and what appears to be a few lean-looking hares as well, their long back feet sticking out the top. Her feet are bare, the toenails somewhat jagged and lined with dirt. Her face is not as wrinkled as you’d expect, but both her eyes and mouth are a bit squinty, and there are several white hairs upon her chin and cheeks. There is a broom grasped in her right hand, dark brown bristles pointed skyward.
“You certainly gave me a scare, grandmother! I didn’t hear you sneak up behind me at all. This is yours, right?” He holds out the rake toward her.
“I’m not your grandmother, I’m a witch!” And then she sneezes. Eugene notices that she is missing a tooth or two. “But yes, that’s my rake,” she says, rubbing her one-wart nose.
“A witch? Really? Well here you go, take it inside so that no one will trip over it.” He hands it over to her, and she grabs it with the same hand holding the broom. Together, they form a tall, narrow ‘X’ in her hand.
“Thank you,” she says, though the ‘you’ is pronounced more like an ‘ew’ of revulsion. “I keep these two just in case my patch o’ land needs tidyin’ but as you can see,” she sweeps a hand toward the scant grass and dusty dirt, “the trees here never seem to make much of a mess, at least not usually. Got a shovel around here somewhere, too… ” she mutters.
Eugene looks around at the naked trees as if noticing them for the first time, bony branches reaching out to the dusky sky. “Oh, indeed. How strange. Must be some foreign phylum that took over this area. Not uncommon. In any case, do you think I could stay in your tent for the night? I’ll be gone in the morning, so you needn’t worry about any freeloading.”
“I’ve no objection to it. I must warn you, though, come nighttime things might get a bit hairy. I am part wolf, of course.”
Eugene lets out a laugh. “Indeed! A witch who is half wolf. Myself, I am part goat.”
She purses her lips. “All witches are part wolf, I thought it was common knowledge. But goat, eh?… interesting. Follow me!” She turns and enters the tent, broom and rake brushing against the edge of the narrow opening.
He raises an eyebrow at her but does not press the matter further, bending low to follow her into the darkness.
The inside of the tent is a mess of piled mats, and dirt and grass litter the area or peek up between the gaps in spite of the thickly piled leathers. Must’ve taken a veritable herd to furnish this place, not to mention the tent itself. The mats seem to be bunched up most around the edges of the tent and then also around the bubbling pot, forming a makeshift fire pit. Both Eugene and the witch cough a bit as they pass through smoky regions of the tent.
“C’mon, have a seat, put down that pack. The name’s Marista, by the way. Yours?”
“Eugh -” He coughs again as a gout of smoke flies in his face. “Excuse me. I’m Eugene.”
“Pleased to meetcha, Eugene. And what is it that you’re carrying in that pack of yours? Looks stuffed fit to burst.”
“I’m delivering paper and books to Fencepost. Quaint little village out in the southland all by itself. Heard of it?”
She shakes her head. “Stick to these parts. Not a traveler. Make me own paper outta wood pulp when I need it.”
“Well that’s certainly one way to do it. My father thinks Fencepost is an untapped market. We shall see about that.”
“Don’t read much either. Wrote me own spellbooks, and everything else I can learn from some fresh wolf guts.”
Eugene raises an eyebrow. “Aren’t they your relatives?”
“No. Like I said, I’m a witch.”
“Ah. I see.” He leans forward a bit to peer into the boiling cauldron. In spite of the low light level in the tent and the bubbling surface of the water, the bottom of the vessel is clearly visible. “By the way, there’s nothing in this pot, you know.”
Eugene tenses slightly in spite of himself, sitting up straight. “… you’re not going to cook me in there, are you?” He attempts a laugh but it comes out a little crooked.
“Ehhh? What kind of question is that?” She squints at him and frowns.
“It’s just, I’ve read tales of witches who eat people, are you one of those?”
Marista raises one thin eyebrow. “Why would I have caught these rabbits if I was plannin’ to eat you? I thought you were jokin’ about the pot bein’ empty…” she stands to look into it. “Ach! Dinner’s gonna be a little late today, and me starving since midday.” She turns around, heaves, and then upturns the sack into the pot, snatching the two hares from the cascade of vegetables. Hot drops of water splash out and Eugene pulls his legs back as quick as he can, a sprinkling of dark dots appearing on his too-slow shoes. Marista withdraws a knife from within her clothing, the blade dull and somewhat jagged but the tip easily sharp enough to skin the animals, and she does so with practiced efficiency, throwing the inedible guts off to the side. With the meat thrown in as well, the bubbles still as the water adjusts to its new, colder occupants. Eugene moves closer again and they sit in silence, the witch sorting through the pile of entrails and the courier withdrawing a book from his pack, though his eyes flicker up frequently, and not many pages are turned. Around twenty minutes pass before either of them speaks again.
“Ohhh, any moment now.”
“Ah good, I’m quite hungry-” Eugene had just started to pay attention to his reading, and looks up at this remark to see that Marista has squinched her eyes shut, brow furrowed and bony-knuckled hands clasping and unclasping, tendons standing out in stark relief. “Are you all right?” he says, eyebrows raised. He rises to his feet and holds out an arm to the shaking woman, then withdraws it and backs away when she rotates her head at an angle and gnashes her teeth, eyes wide, the whites of them are littered with blood vessels, the edges seeming to fill with black. Her arms and legs elongate with a noise like meat being torn from bone, once wrinkled skin stretched taut, and dark brown, coarse hair sprouts everywhere skin is visible, pale white visible between the strands. The knife she used earlier tumbles from her stretching and tearing dress and Eugene rushes forward to grab it while she is still distracted by the throes of transformation. The reason behind the tent’s size and her oft-patched clothes becomes evident, and in minutes she is both taller and larger than Eugene, who glances at his open pack and then bolts for the tent opening. His foot snags one of the mats and he tumbles to the ground, rolling over and holding the knife out in front of him, arms shaking and teeth bared. However, the enormous, wolf-like form has not moved from where its human form sat. It sits almost cross-legged, broad palms resting upon the sides of its knees. The long, narrow, and panting face jerkily turns to look at the cowering man, the tiny red irides burning from with the black orbs of its eyes. Two sharp ears twitch, and then it speaks.
[Edit 3/11/2018: Added ‘mountains’ to opening paragraph.]
( ©2017 Sean Dorsey )