The meadow shone golden-green in the warm sunset, and for a few brief moments Alice regretted her decision.
The rain had stopped, and almost instantly the day had become beautiful. Birds resumed their trilling, the sun was warm on her skin and the familiar sounds of village children at play could be heard in the distance. Only the dampness of the grass soaking through her thin shoes gave any hint of the afternoon’s earlier incessant rain.
Maybe this is wrong. Maybe this is all wrong.
It was the first real doubt that had occurred to her since she’d had the notion to run. She glanced guiltily back – at her village behind the tree line, so familiar. She’d left Anna behind. Left her alone.
Alice stopped walking, her feet sinking slightly in the rain-drenched grass, lightweight shoes ruined already. She felt cold mud squelch between her toes, making her shudder. Just turn around and go home… do it now and nobody would ever even know. I could be home tonight, in my own bed,Anna in hers beside me, Father making us hot chocolate… Mother…
I won’t go back as long as she’s there.
Determination set in again. Alice’s brow furrowed, her jaw clenched and she summoned up every ounce of what courage and confidence she’d learnt in all of her sixteen years.
She marched onwards, across the meadow, the village behind her. She told herself that she’d go back for Anna someday, and for a little while she even believed it.
Her sister was just over a year her junior, but behaved much older. People tended to think little Anna was the older of the two. Alice knew her sister suffered the same as she had, but only rarely did they speak of it. Anna could take care of herself.
She clutched her worn old satchel tightly, hugging it to her chest as she strode. She wondered if she should have brought more food for the journey – her stomach was rumbling already and breakfast hadn’t been long ago. But since Father had lost his job, money had been scarce – and she hadn’t wanted to deprive her sister of too much food. She felt guilty enough for what meagre provisions she had stolen from the pantry – a handful of jerky, one small loaf, and a bottle of fresh milk. This, along with the bag that contained them, now represented all her worldly possessions.
Before too long, Alice reached the easternmost edge of the field, and was almost past the village boundary. To leave by the road would have meant attracting attention, and she was too afraid to pass by the inn that stood on the southern outskirts by herself. This left her only option to escape through the open meadows and cross into and through the forest beyond.
She knew the nearby woods fairly well, even though she’d never been allowed to play in them as a child – a rule her old school friends had regularly tried to persuade her to break. Once, when she’d been twelve or thirteen, she had crept out at midnight to a copse which lay halfway to the nearest town. She had her first kiss that night with a boy she had loved with all her heart for a whole summer, and they’d lain together beside the small pond looking up at the stars, and she’d told him why she didn’t want to go home.
She never saw him again after that night, and the next morning Mother had beaten her almost to death.
Alice wished she’d thought to bring some better shoes – Mother’s, possibly even Father’s, even though they would have been far too big – as soon as she set foot into the woodland. The rough ground pricked and hurt her feet terribly, puncturing the thin soles of her shoes and slowing her progress almost to a standstill.
She tiptoed gingerly through the woods – stepping on leaves and moss where she could, trying to avoid the sharpest stones and the worst of the filth. The world dimmed as the sun edged out of sight, and she realised she’d passed the point of no return.
It was too late to go back now. Mother would be home in another ten minutes or so. Even if she returned right now, she’d never make it back in time to conceal evidence of her journey. And she could only imagine the welcome she’d receive. She’d taken twenty lashes the previous month because Mother caught her smiling at a townsman at the market – even though he’d smiled at her first, the innocent smile a father would give a daughter – she could still feel the agony as the rod wielded by her mother painted its vicious red criss-crosses across her back, buttocks and legs, still hear her mother’s rabid cackling (“whore! Little whore!”), as, worst of all, Father drank and smoked in his chair, ignoring her naked, weak pleas for help. He had pretended nothing was wrong, just like he always did. And later as she lay in bed, unable to move for the pain, he brought her honeyed milk and sang to her until she pretended to be asleep.
Was he just as afraid of Mother as Alice was? Or did he simply enjoy his daughter’s torment as much as his wife did – were they both as twisted, cruel and spiteful as each other?
Alice realised she’d stopped walking altogether in her reverie. It was twilight now, and she began to grow afraid. She wanted to go home, but to a safe home, a happy one – a home she’d never known.
She sat heavily down on the cold ground – the effort to go on suddenly too much to bear. Burying her head in her arms, she wept, slowly and quietly. Her small chest heaved rhythmically and suddenly she felt as if something was on the verge of being released that had been buried within her for a very long time. She cried for a long time.
The watching figure didn’t approach until she was sound asleep.
It was fully dark when Alice woke, awakened either by the cold or from the uncomfortable ground she was lay upon. She gasped softly at the realisation that she was being watched.
The woman sat on a thick fallen log fifteen feet or so from where Alice had collapsed. She sat motionless, her back ramrod-straight, her hands on her knees.
“You suffer,” she said, matter-of-factly. “It drew me to you.” Her voice was old, and seemed to come from all around.
Alice didn’t reply. The woman was dressed in what appeared to be a collection of filthy, mossy rags covered in leaves and mud. Her hair was the colour of trees, and seemed to shimmer in the moonlight. And strangest of all, she didn’t seem to have a face – or at least not one that Alice could make sense of.
She said nothing more. She just stared.
“Who are you?” asked Alice eventually, not sure she wanted to know the answer. She felt a strong urge to run, to get away, (anywhere, right now!) from this woman – yet at the same time she was strangely compelled to stay, to talk with her.
“I had no name when they cursed me, I have no name now. In the damp and rot I wept and moaned and spat and grew. I am you.” Her voice was both gratingly metallic and oddly haunting. It felt as if the forest itself was talking to her, in many voices all at once. Alice’s chest felt constricted with the effort to even listen to this apparition.
“You’re a witch,” decided Alice, with the resigned air of one for whom life couldn’t possibly contain horrors worse than those already experienced. “And you’re not me. I’m the only me.”
“Perhaps we shall see,” said the forest woman, and then in a lower voice hissed, “I am vengeance, or I am freedom.”
Alice rose, her feet freezing in the tattered remains of the little shoes. She picked up her bag, now caked in dried mud from where she’d dropped it. “What do you mean?”
The woman rose too – or rather seemed to glide into a position that more closely resembled standing – and as she moved the whole forest seemed to quiver. She was much taller than she’d appeared. Alice frowned and squinted, for even in the bright moonlight she found that she couldn’t quite focus on the woman’s face. She tried looking directly at the woman’s eyes, but her gaze diverted itself away, to the stranger’s filthy greenish-brown rags, or her wavy forest hair, or simply down to the ground.
Alice backed away a step. The woman didn’t follow, but answered “I read your dreams as you slept and I read your heart as it beats. These are the things you desire. One you can have.”
The girl considered this. Vengeance and freedom – these were two concepts that had never occurred to her so starkly before. She supposed that running away was to seek freedom. But as enticing as her planned escape was, the thought of taking revenge on Mother, of paying her back for the theft of her childhood, for a thousand hurts and a million tears, was suddenly very tempting indeed.
Her feet hurt badly. She wished she had better shoes.
The witch-woman glided towards her (or was it Alice herself who had moved? She couldn’t say). “I will gift you shoes,” she hissed. “I will gift you horse and carriage, a gallant guard to protect you and safe harbour for the rest of your days. If you name me freedom.”
“And what if I name you vengeance?” Alice felt she was beginning to catch on. There was an offer here.
“Then I will gift you that and nothing more.” It felt as if the witch was inside her soul, moving. Alice couldn’t look up at her, just stared at the leaves on the ground as they slowly swirled about the woman’s feet. “But the door you do not open will be closed forever.”
The young girl stood alone in the woods facing the witch-woman, her thoughts of the place she’d wanted so desperately to think of as home. She felt anger rise up inside her then, hatred for the woman who’d given birth to her only to torment and torture her. An old fury that had always been there, buried deep beneath the surface, cold and dormant.
She made her choice.
She crept through the little house on tiptoes, every creak of the wooden floorboards making her freeze and glance nervously about as if she could check through the ceiling that her parents still slept.
Thinking back, she couldn’t remember a time that she’d been more afraid. Not during the floggings, the beatings – all the names Mother had spat at her, names she mostly hadn’t even understood at the time – because if she did this right, it would mean the end of all the pain.
The stairs groaned under her light weight as she climbed. Slowly, now. One slip, one creak would spell disaster – and she dreaded to think what misery would be unleashed on her this time.
Eventually, she reached her parent’s bedroom. Most of the doors in their ramshackle house didn’t close properly – the wood was old and the doorframes warped. But this worked in her favour as she found she was able to silently push it open and peek into the room.
Both of her parents slept.
Her young body almost collapsed with relief, as if she’d been half-expecting Mother or Father to be lying in wait for her, to seize her by the throat as she entered the room. But here they were – sleeping peacefully side by side.
Father had drunk himself to sleep tonight as usual, so accidentally waking him wasn’t a concern. Mother was a light sleeper though, so she must be cautious.
Fixing her determined gaze on the closed eyes of her mother, she began stalking towards the bed. Fear danced in her stomach. At any moment she expected those vicious, wizened eyes to snap open, to fix her with the chilling glare that was so familiar.
Before long – and without a single creak from the floorboards (for which she shot off a quick prayer of thanks to whichever gods must have been watching) – she reached Mother’s side of the bed.
Her eyes were still closed.
Quickly, she popped open the lid of the small vial she carried. The tiny sound was amplified in the dark silence of the bedroom, and she winced. But neither of her parents stirred.
She drew a glass eyedropper from her pocket and dipped it into the vivid blue liquid in the vial. This is it.
The instant the dropper touched her mother’s lips, one single drop of the liquid spread smoothly across her lower lip – and her eyes exploded open. The girl was caught in Mother’s rheumy glare. Bony, supernaturally strong fingers gripped herby the wrist and, startled, she dropped both vial and dropper, spilling the rest of the contents onto the bed sheets.
She tried to pull away, but the grip held her firmly. Mother was rising from the bed now, fury and disgust and hatred spreading across her haggard face.
Suddenly the girl knew that the potion was starting to work. Mother’s brow was furrowing in confusion. Her old lips were moving – trying to speak, to shout – but no sound came forth.
The vicelike grip became noticeably weaker, and the girl was able to snatch her arm away. The hand didn’t grab for her again, as she expected – it merely hung there, outstretched in space, fingers curled as if gripping something invisible.
Another couple of seconds, and Mother was utterly frozen.
The girl stared, feeling her heart pounding in her chest. Mother stared straight back at her, unmoving. Even her eyes were frozen in time, living statue eyes, glaring. Her mouth was half-open, as if she’d lost the battle with the powerful poison right in the middle of some silent word.
Father hadn’t stirred at all. She could still hear his laboured breathing. He must have drunk more than she’d thought, thank the gods.
The furious statue that was Mother stared impotently at her daughter but could do nothing as the girl reached out to retrieve the vial from where it had fallen. Most of the blue liquid had been lost, but more than enough still clung to the lip of the small container. She stepped around the bed and rubbed what remained onto her father’s lips.
His slowing breath was the only indication that the poison had again taken effect. She was glad he was sound asleep – he deserved what was coming, but he’d been a facilitator, nothing more. A weak, pathetic drunkard, who had been unable to defend either her or her sister.
It was a strange sight, she thought, seeing Mother here like this. Bedclothes all in disarray, hair unkempt, arm outstretched and clutching nothing. One leg jutted out, almost reaching the floor. And those eyes, they were the worst of all – unblinking, staring, full of hate. Mother was completely awake though, and could see and hear– and more importantly feel – everything.
The effects had been made very clear to her when she had bought the potion from the travelling apothecary. The price had been high, for her own young body had been the only payment the leering old man would accept – and she had paid it willingly, had let the arthritic old wizard have his way with her, in the field behind the graveyard – in exchange for the potion she sought.
It had all been all worth it, now.
“I’m sorry this had to happen,” said the girl quietly, half to herself, eyes fixed on her mothers.
“And I don’t know what’s wrong with you. But maybe it takes evil to stop evil.”
She had put up with it all her life. The beatings, the humiliation, and the fear. But she had never really considered trying to change things, or taking revenge. It was a way of life, the only one she’d ever known.
But now things were different. Her sister had been missing for three days. Alice had been her only friend, the only one who suffered as she did, was gone. The only explanation could bethat she’d run away. She briefly considered the possibility that Mother had somehow killed her. But she’d dismissed that – Mother enjoyed the game too much to ever let it end.
The girl drew the small matchbox from her pocket. “She’s gone now, and you drove her away. I hope she forgets you…” – As the words burbled out, she realised that tears were falling now, hot and fast. “Alice left me here with you and I hate her for it! I hate her and I hate you!”
Trembling now, it took several shaky attempts for Anna to strike the match. When it finally erupted into flame, the eyes of the living statue sparkled like a thing from another world. “She’s just a selfish bitch like you.” Anna spat finally.
Anna set her mother’s hair alight first, and couldn’t help but smile even as the stench of burning hair almost choked her.
Mother’s bedclothes caught aflame surprisingly easily, and soon the flames had enveloped her body completely. Throughout the conflagration, as the old woman’s clothes disintegrated and her wrinkled skin blackened, Anna’s stare never wavered from the eyes.
Before long, the fire began to spread from the bed to the small wooden dresser and the sheepskin rug on the floor, and Anna knew that the whole room would be ablaze shortly. She backed away as Mother’s eyes started to bubble and melt. Father, too, was burning – his shorter white hair had burned away quicker, and most of his body was hidden under the blazing bed sheet.
Anna turned, heading for the stairwell. She paused briefly before she left the room, and looked back upon her mother for the last time. The old woman was a flame-caressed demon, frozen in time mid-scream. She’d never looked more like herself.
The stench of burning flesh stung Anna’s eyes and filled her lungs as she fled the house, coughing. She snatched up the rucksack that she had packed earlier.
Her tears had stopped by the time she reached the edge of the village. The shouts of startled villagers in the distance indicated that she’d got away in time.
Perhaps she’d find Alice someday. She wasn’t sure that she even wanted to. But for now, she just needed to get away. Uncle Harry’s farm was two days by horse. She had no horse, but she was determined. And for the first time, she was free.
She strode onwards, along the road that would take her to the rest of her life.
Alice woke once more in the forest, this time with a clammy cold sweat clinging to her skin.
The dream had been vivid. Lucid. It took several heartbeats before she realised that the acrid stench of smoke and burning flesh in her throat were just fading dream-memories.
“Oh, Anna…” she murmured softly, squeezing her temples. “I’m sorry, Anna.”
But she knew it’d been much more than just a dream. The witch had given her exactly what she’d chosen, but it had cost far more than she’d imagined.
The price had been paid, and now she had to live with her decision.
She forced her eyes open. Her eyes, once sky-blue were now rich hazel. The forest canopy hung above her, a bright clear sky visible through the gaps in the trees. It was another beautiful day. The light stung her eyes.
She ran her fingers through her hair, hair thick with mud and leaves and insects. Her fingers were longer than before, and much older.
“It is done,” came the voice again, from inside her and around her, from the forest itself and from another time. “The choice has been made.”
The girl who used to be Alice – who used to be so many girls and boys with so many lives and stories and agonies of their own – drew her brown-green cloak of leaves and rags and mud around herself and withdrew deeper into the forest, to wait for nightfall.
She needed to gather her strength.
Someone would need her again, before long.
Someone always did.
Copyright Ben Knight