There is a witch living in the house on the hill.
Contrary to popular belief, witches do not simply appear fully grown and imbued with magic. They begin their lives as everyone does, as children.
So it was with the witch on the hill. She lived with her mother in the house left to them by her father, who had long since passed. The witch, as a young girl, revered her mother, who seemed to her the wisest person in the world.
“Love is like a bouquet of roses,” her mother had once told her. “At first, it is so bright and beautiful that it lights up the room with its sweetness. But before long, my love, it fades and wilts. And soon all you have left is something dead and the memory of when it was beautiful.”
“Loneliness, my dearest,” said her mother on another occasion, “is a terrible thing. The worst thing one can be in this world is alone.”
And also: “Hold fast to what you love, my darling. Hold fast and never let go. Do this and you will never be unhappy.”
Nothing overly profound, perhaps, but words that the witch would keep in her heart as she grew.
Now, the witch’s mother was not a witch herself, but her sister was, and so, when the girl began to display signs of magical aptitude, her mother made the decision to send her daughter away to be taught to understand her magic. It was a difficult choice, for her sister was many miles distant, and mother and child loved one another dearly. But a witch who cannot control her power is a dangerous thing, and so mother and child parted with a great many tears and promises to write.
The aunt was strict, but she rewarded curiosity, and the girl flourished under her tutelage. There was much to learn and memorize, for witches dare not write their knowledge down out of fear of being discovered by those who wish them ill. Over the years, the witch learned to weave moonlight and steal another’s voice. She learned to enchant everyday items to help or hinder, and to communicate or travel through any surface that held a reflection. The girl dutifully wrote home every week, and looked forward to her mother’s letters, but returned home only twice a year, for Christmas and her mother’s birthday. She knew now that her mother was not wise, but a sad, scared woman, and though she still loved her, the girl no longer wished to constantly be by her side.
Loneliness, her mother had said, was a terrible thing, and in the end it killed her. The girl, by now a competent witch, left her aunt’s house and returned home to bury her mother. The funeral was a small, pitiful affair, attended only by the witch and her aunt, for the poor woman had rarely left her home and had no friends. The witch inherited the house on the hill and a modest yearly income, and the aunt, confident in her abilities, left her niece to her own devices once the paperwork was in order.
For all the witch had loved her mother, she had no desire to live like her, never leaving the house or visiting town. The witch was young and bright and pretty and wished for the company of other bright, pretty young men and women. She visited museums and sketched; she attended the opera and lectures on politics and science. She made a small number of friends—like-minded women fascinated by the world. Her aunt sniffed at the witch’s interest in science, but the witch did not see how science was incompatible with magic. Both were ways of understanding and manipulating the world, after all.
After a time, the witch found herself courted by a handsome young man who attended many of the same lectures as she. He bought her roses, and she heard her mother’s voice: Love is a bouquet of roses. But her mother had not been as wise as she had once believed her to be, and the witch loved the young man fiercely, whispering spells to keep him safe before she went to sleep each night.
After a respectable courtship, the young man and the witch became engaged. Everything would be perfect, thought the witch, except that her fiancé was often away on business. Still, she reasoned, they were not unhappy, and absence surely made the heart grow fonder, for every day she felt she could not love him more, and yet every day she found that her feelings had doubled as she slept.
One day, a mere week before they were to be wed, the young man brought the witch a gift. It was a camera, like the one that had been discussed at the lecture they attended the night he proposed. There would be a wedding photograph, of course, but he remembered her interest in the device, and purchased one for her own, private use. His only condition was that he be her first subject, a condition she granted without hesitation.
He preened and posed on the stool she set up, and laughingly asked her whether he looked handsome enough. She frowned and replied that she was not sure, but they could examine his portrait and come to a conclusion together. After she prepared the gelatin plate, she instructed him to look into the camera, which he did, eyes bright.
If only we could always be this happy, the witch thought, and took the picture.
Wishes are powerful things, and the wish of a witch is doubly so. As her young man’s image was burned onto the plate, the light faded from his eyes and he slid, as if boneless, off the stool. The camera beside her hand hummed with faint vitality to her witch's senses, and she understood all at once what had happened.
She had heard tell, of course, that to capture another person’s likeness was to capture their soul. It was a potent form of sympathetic magic. And yet the thought had not occurred to her until this moment that she could do such a thing herself. Certainly, she had not believed herself capable of stealing a soul with a mere thought. And yet it appeared that this was precisely what she had done.
The witch had expected to feel horrified and heartbroken that the body of the man she had loved lay dead at her feet. Yet, strangely, she felt calm. He was dead,yes, but he wasn’t gone. The truly important part of him, his soul, was with her still, preserved in the photograph she had just taken. They would still be together forever, just as they had planned, and their love would never fade or wilt or die.
The next week found her wearing mourner's black instead of wedding white as she attended the second funeral of her short life. Everyone attending agreed that it was all very tragic, and that the young woman was very strong in the aftermath of her heartbreaking loss.
“What a lovely photograph,” sighed the young man’s mother. “It feels almost as if he is here with us.”
“It has been such a comfort," agreed the witch, smiling tenderly at the framed portrait. "As if his spirit were still with me.”
For a time, the only photograph in the house on the hill was that of the young man. Who else was there who she would wish to spend her life with? She spoke to him every day, just as she would had they truly married, and wished him a good night before she went to sleep. In her spare hours, she took up flower-arranging, in memory of her mother and her advice. The flowers, indeed, would fade and wilt and die, but she had held fast to her love and would never lose it, never be alone.
After her mourning period ended, the witch once more began to visit museums and attend lectures, although she never left off black. She was quieter than before, her friends agreed, although no one blamed her for it.
As the months passed, the witch found herself fascinated by a visiting lecturer who spoke passionately on the relationship between art and politics. His energy and flair for words made her think of magic, and she longed to speak with him further. She worked a small spell to draw his interest, and was rewarded when he came to call one afternoon. They walked out together, maintaining a respectable distance and speaking on everything under the sun. The witch mentioned, lightly, that she had an interest in photography, but had been lacking in subjects since the death of her fiancé.
The lecturer offered himself to be photographed, and the witch charmingly accepted. He was not seen again, but after all, he was only visiting. No one doubted that he had simply moved on to the next city.
After that, the witch began to grow greedy. Two souls were simply not enough. There were so many fascinating people in the world, and she wanted to keep them all for herself.
And so she began to seek out new subjects, ones with enchanting faces and interesting minds. The witch was mindful not to photograph too many people from her city, as the lessons her aunt had taught her were with her still, and she was loathe to have her true nature discovered. Instead, she made friends with tourists and travelers and those who lived alone. The witch plied them with conversation and friendship and kindness, and asked only for the privilege of taking their picture in return. She gained a reputation as a charitable, if lonely, woman, and all the while her house filled with photographs.
Although the witch treasured each and every soul, there were some who she held dearer than others. Her fiancé, of course, the first man she had loved and the first soul she had taken; there was the girl in white, one of the few photographs of women she had; and then there was the bearded man, an anomaly in a sea of clean-shaven faces. Each represented, to her, the possibility of another life she might have had.
The girl in white, a lovely young thing, appeared in her garden one spring day. She was quiet at first, but the witch could see that the girl was full of curiosity, and drew her out with careful questions and remarks. The girl reminded the witch of herself, back when she had been truly young, fascinated by the world entire. They would sit in the garden and talk for hours, until evening fell and the girl had to return home.
If the girl had had an ounce of magical aptitude, things may have gone very differently. The witch, who already saw herself in the girl, may have taken her under her wing. The girl in white might have grown to become a talented witch herself, and they could have been dear companions. Alas for them both, the girl in white was as human as can be.
And so, one day, the witch invited the girl inside. Together, they drank hot chocolate and ate pastries as the girl admired the many photos on the walls around them.
“Do you have an interest in photography?” asked the witch. She leaned in close, as if she were asking for a secret. The girl blushed and smiled prettily.
“I think it’s fascinating,” she admitted. “Like being immortal.”
“Would you like me to take your photograph, then?” the witch smiled. “Would you like to live forever?”
And what else could the poor girl in white say but yes?
As for the bearded man…
It would be difficult to say who noticed who first—the witch or the man. Either way, they spoke with their eyes long before they spoke with their voices. The witch on her solitary walks felt his gaze on her, and sent him sidelong glances in return.
After a month of silent flirtation, he bought her flowers. Lilies, not roses. The witch’s heart fluttered in her chest as she accepted them, for the bearded man was handsome indeed. They spoke of wine and fashion and the movements of the planets. It only felt natural to take his hand.
In another life, he might have been her husband. They could have lived together for many years, and when he discovered her true, magical nature, he would not have minded at all. They could have been happy.
It was not to be, however, and the bearded man's portrait took pride of place above the fireplace, remaining there for years.
No one knows how many photographs the witch has taken, nor what she does with the souls trapped inside. Some claim that she uses their energy to keep herself young, and certainly she looks much as she did when first she was engaged. Others say that she speaks with the dead mounted on her wall, and that their spirits can speak back. The truth may never be known, for any who dare approach her risk having their own souls stolen.
There is a witch living on the house on the hill, and if nothing has changed, she is living there still.