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The Witch in the Woods

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The Forest God speaks: My people roamed the earth and crossed the waters in search of other lands, clearing the forests for space to live as they went. The more numerous they became, the more of the forest they cleared; the further they roamed, the more they forgot how they had once depended on the forest even as they depended on the cleared earth with its corn for bread and its grass for sheep and cattle. By the time they crossed the great waters to the west and found a new continent, they had learned to fear and avoid the forest and all who did not fear it as they did. Out of that fear as well as greed, they turned against the native peoples who knew and loved the whole of the land, as the settlers’ ancestors had, and had offered them aid and friendship at first, until the settlers called their gods and spirits demons.

But not all the spirits who roamed those woods in what they called “the New World” were strange to them. All forests of a certain kind belong to me, and I to them; they are my home, and I can be met there as well as in the old lands….

My father named me Sibylla, and I wish he had not. If he had not named me after a heathen prophetess of old, my life might have been far different. Had my life been different, I might not be where I am right now. Where am I? I am tied to a tree in the darkening woods on the Eve of All Hallows as a sacrifice for the wendigo.

I am cold, hungry, thirsty. I am sore where the ropes cut into my flesh, binding me to the tree. The men from the village stripped me to my shift before tying me up. I am afraid for myself but more afraid for my father, whom they set upon and beat unconscious in order to carry me away. If he struck his head upon the hearthstone, he could be dead by now from an injury of the brain. He might get up and go about his business, believing himself to be well, and then pass away suddenly.

He might be entirely well, but have no way to find and rescue me, and I may die of hunger or of thirst or of cold.

I do not believe in the wendigo, although my Indian friend Dorcas says it is real and dwells among the Indians who live further north. It is said to be a kind of demon or ghost that eats human flesh and can never be satisfied, no matter how much or how often it eats. The villagers say it is a creature with the antlers of a deer, the claws of a bear, the teeth of a wolf, and a body like a man’s, only freakishly tall. They say that I am a witch and the wendigo is a creature of Satan and my familiar, or my god, or both. Some say that I am its servant and do its bidding, others that I command it and send it about to do harm.

I am not a witch! I am only a girl, and just because I can read and write and do sums, and can dress a cut or a burn so that it will heal properly, and saw the deer by the pond and they did not run away from me, but let me come close to them, that does not mean I am a witch. These Puritans see witchcraft and devilry behind every cobweb in the corner and under every fallen leaf. All the devilishness I have seen in the world comes from man, and so says my father, who is a wise man and I pray he is well. I could not bear to lose him as I have already lost maman.

I do not know how long I have been here. My legs are weary of standing, and my shoulders ache from my arms being drawn back and bound to the tree. It has gotten so dark that I can see nothing, nothing whatsoever. I do not believe in the wendigo, but I know there are wolves in these woods, and bears, and more to be feared, broken men, lawless men who might carry me away as a prize, a common-law wife to cook and clean and sate their carnal needs.

I am so tired. I am shivering with the deepening cold. If I stand on my feet, I have pain and weariness. If I let go and let the ropes hold me up, I have more pain from the ropes. A feeling of pins and needles is creeping through my feet; soon it may not matter whether I stand or sag. I have not heard Mass or thought much of religion since we made our duty at Easter, yet I begin to pray the Ave Maria with my dry lips, as maman taught me.

There is a light. Praise God, there is a light! I pray the more ardently--until I realize it is the moon. The full moon has risen enough for its rays to penetrate the trees. I can see more as it rises, yet I cannot apprehend what I see. Everything is black and silver; there are no other colors, there are no edges. One form slides liquid into another. A bird calls softly, calls again, and commences a song.

Then I hear a rhythmical noise that is in no way the call of a bird. Nor is it the shuffling gait of a bear, I think, nor the soft patter of wolf paws. The steady, deliberate steps toward me belong to a creature that walks on two legs, like a man, but the terrible shadow that breaks the moonlight is too tall, too monstrous to be human--

“Child.”

To my shame, I scream in terror. Only once I have vented my feelings do I seem to hear what was said, and how.

“Child?”

The moving shadow speaks again, with a man’s voice, soft as velvet, and with a lilt like an Irishman. He is and is not a man. He has the form of a man, in his face and body, and he can speak, but his legs are shaggy like an animal’s, and he has the antlers of a great stag. He is taller than any man I have ever seen, tall as the trees that surround us.

He comes closer then, and seems to shrink. He is uncommonly tall, yes, but not monstrously so. Did he have antlers, or was that a delusion? He is wearing a plain shirt of unbleached linen over coarse brown trousers; his feet are bare, but they are not the hooves of a deer, nor the paws of a wolf. He stops a little way from where I stand bound, not close enough to touch me, and stoops, so that I look down upon his face and he looks up at me.

“Child, what is happening here? Who has done this to you?”

Now that I can see him, with the moonlight on his face, he seems young though bearded, and handsome, with long hair like a cavalier’s that falls over his shoulders. He stretches a hand toward me--he is too far away to reach me--and it is long and fair, with slim fingers like a woman’s.

“They think I am a witch.”

He shakes his head slowly. “You are no witch. You are barely more than a child. Who are they? Who has hurt you?”

I lick my lips. My tongue is thick and stiff for lack of drink. “The villagers. The Puritans.”

Slowly, he rises to his feet. He must be over six feet tall. “Are those the ones who only wear black and white, who have been cutting and burning the forest and fighting the native people?”

“Yes.”

Once again he stretched out a hand to me, this time holding a cup of water. “You sound parched. Will you drink of this?”

I nodded. Now that I could see him and speak to him, he did not seem likely to ravish me, or to be a wendigo that would eat my flesh. He put the cup to my lips and tipped it that I might drink, with care. It was spring water, cold and mineral and alive. I had never tasted such water. It had the flavor of all the strange wildness of the forest itself.

He gave me sip by sip until the cup was empty. “Better now?” He was smiling, which made him look even more handsome.

“Yes, thank you.”

“Now, will you let me untie you? I warn you, you will hurt at first, and probably fall when I loosen the ropes, but I can help you.”

“Yes, please--”

He went round the tree, out of my sight behind me, where they had pulled and knotted the ropes. It did not take him nearly as long to undo them as it had taken the men to do them up. First the pulling on my shoulders eased, and I could not forbear a moan of relief. Then the ropes across my bosom, waist, and thighs began to let go, leaving me to sag forward against them. I did fall, sinking to my knees first and then toppling forward, unable to break myself with my hands.

I lay on the forest floor, tears coming to my eyes, shaking with renewed pain in the welts of the rope, in my neck and shoulders, arms and hands. There was no strength in me to resist as he took me in his arms and drew me into his lap.

“Easy, colleen beck,” he said. His hand wrapped around the back of my neck, large and very warm, where I had expected his touch to be cold. I was cold, chilled nearly to the bone, but he was warm all over; I cringed in shame as I noticed the warmth of his breast, his lean thighs, his strong arms.

“Easy,” he said again. “I don’t wish to harm you. Lie still and let me help.”

Warmth spread out from his hands upon me, from the places where our bodies touched. I thought of how maman used to dip up hot water out of the bath and pour it down my back--it felt that like, like sweet-smelling warm water flowing over me. Where it flowed, pain fled, as if washed away. I saw the red stripes the ropes had left in my arms soften, turn pale, and vanish.

“There.” He stroked my hair, as gently as my father might have. I looked into his face and yearned toward him in a way I had never felt before.

“I do not think you are a wendigo,” I said. “But I do not think you are a man, either.”

He dipped his head once. “You are right. I am neither. Long ago I was called a god, long before the Christ died and rose again. But your ancestors were convinced by others that the Christ and his father were the only god, so all of us gods were called demons.”

“I do not think you are a demon. You have done me no harm. You have done no harm to the villagers or anyone hereabouts.”

He frowned, which made me feel afraid again yet not for myself. “There are demons in the world, to be sure, beings that wish ill to others and to humans especially. Yet humans also do ill to one another.”

He looked down at me, I think to see that all my injuries had been healed. I remembered though that I was clad only in my shift, and he could see all of my body easily.


“I must take you to your home now, before the sun rises. You are further from home than you might think, but I can carry you, if you do not fear seeing me in the form I had before.”

I made an attempt to stand up. He helped me to do so, offering me his hands to brace myself, and then stood up also.

“I… I am not afraid.” I clasped my hands together and stood as straight as I could.

Smiling, he took long strides backward, away from me. His form shimmered in the moonlight, as if a thin veil passed between my eyes and him. Then I saw him clearly again, with the legs and hooves of a deer, his upper body bare, his head carrying a stag’s antlers.

As I looked, the hair on his chest thickened, and leaves of ivy sprouted from the base of his antlers. The ivy cascaded down and wound about him, covering much of his naked skin, so that he seemed less nude if no more human. When the ivy had ceased its growth, he offered me his hand.

“Let me carry you, child, and I can run swiftly.”

I allowed him to lift me in his arms, as if I were only a child. I seemed to cost him no more effort than lifting a bundle of sticks. He bent his head, and I felt warm, sweet breath sweep over me as he inhaled and blew out, like a beast, before setting off at a run, fleeter than any man could go.

I remember little of that run. I think I closed my eyes; what I do remember is the rush of air about us, the sound of his quick harsh breathing, the smell of him, like wet earth and leaves and honey and fur. After a long time he began to slow his pace. I opened my eyes at last to see a rosy light about me, coming through trees that were much farther apart--the light of dawn.

He stopped, and stooped to let my feet touch the ground. I reached out and clung to his hand, feeling dizzy. He squeezed my hand gently and kept hold of it, and together we walked to where the trees no longer grew, to the edge of the forest.

I looked across the meadow and the field and cried out with joy. “There is my house! And there is smoke coming from the chimney! Is my father alive?”

“I think he is.” The forest god raised his chin. “I will walk with you just a little further, child.”

When we stopped, I looked up at my strange rescuer and saw the sunshine lighting his hair with a ginger glow. “Go home now, colleen beck. I do not think you should tell anyone of our meeting. I do say this, however. If there comes a time when you need my help again, or if you wish to meet with me, walk into the forest without fear and call for me.”

He cupped my face with his long and slim hand, still so gentle and warm, and bent the long way down to kiss my forehead. Then he let go of me. “Is that your father I see at the door?”

I turned away from him, and yes, it did look like my father. It was not one of the Puritans in their ugly hats. I began to walk toward him, and then to run, and he saw me and began to run also, and soon all I knew was the safety of my father’s arms.

“Oh, Sibylla! My child, ma fille!” He hugged me and kissed me and looked at me, again and again. He had a bandage on his head and bruises on his face, but he was alive.

“Father! Mon pere, oh father, father--”

He straightened up and looked behind me, a strange look coming over his face. “What is that…?”

I turned also and gazed across the distance. It might have been only a stag at the edge of the wood… it might have been the mysterious stranger who rescued me. Had he been wearing a crown of antlers? I could not remember for sure, but I felt myself trembling on my feet and realized I was close to swooning from hunger, thirst, and weariness all together.

Later, when I had been refreshed with some soup and ale and a night’s sleep, I was able to tell my father how men of the village had kidnapped me and taken me into the forest, with the idea that I would be a sacrifice for some evil spirit they imagined. It was not clear in my mind how I had escaped the ropes or found my way home, but father seemed little inclined to question. He had been left for dead, but an old woman traveling alone had found him and tended him and told him to wait for me, that there was hope.

Father wanted to go into the village and seek some kind of redress, but I urged him not to. The villagers’ laws would not defend him if he laid hands on the men responsible or even sought to lay a suit. So we let it be, and he began to talk about moving somewhere else in the spring, perhaps northward where other French Catholics had settled.

Throughout the winter we heard curious stories from passersby, how men from the village were getting lost in the woods. Some talked of wolves or bears that preyed on men; others thought there must be a hidden river or deep ravines a man could fall into without ever seeing and be unable to climb out of. I had some troubling dreams of which I could remember little, only a feeling of unease and the sight of people bound to trees as I had been.

Father wrote letters and made plans, and we determined not to plant in the spring; he had secured work in a town to the north and we would move as soon as the roads were clear enough. The villagers did their early planting, however, and whilst we were still packing our goods, intending to leave the house empty, we heard a dreadful story: A man named Mathers, one of those who had assaulted Father and kidnapped me, had been found strung up like a scarecrow in the newly ploughed fields. He was still dying when they found him, his guts piled at his feet and his heart missing from inside his chest.

Our last night in the house, I dreamed of the scarecrow Mathers. Like a crow I flew past him, laughing within a harsh caw, and then went on into the forest, running as swift as a deer to the arms of one who was both deer and man, half-remembered and half-forgotten, rescuer and punisher, the Forest God.