The Witch of the Woods
One day, a young girl named Gabby was walking down a narrow dirt path that lead away from her village and into the woods. Her Nona always told the girl to stay far, far away from the woods at nightfall. “Evil things love it there, Gabriela,” Nona would warn. “Evil things that would love to… Eat. You. Up.” Then, the old woman would snap her moth shut, and the sound always made Gabby jump.
But it wasn't nightfall. In fact it wasn't even noon. The sun had risen not but two hours ago, and now Gabby was taking a quick break before she started the rest of her morning chores. Just as she was about to head back home, a tiny, purple flower caught Gabby's attention. It was so beautiful, that she stopped dead in her tracks to admire it. Then, she thought about how much Nona would love it. The old woman would put it in a glass bottle and place it in the center of the table, so when Papi and Mama came home from work, they could see the beautiful gift her granddaughter had found for her. The thought of Nona’s warm smile caused one to stretch across Gabby’s face. The girl walked to the flower, but, when she was only a few feet away, a fat, grey rabbit sprung out of the woods. It froze and studied the girl. Gabby took a step. The bunny wiggled its stubby tail and bit the flower in half. It toppled over like a miniature tree. The rabbit gave Gabby a little wink, took the flower in its tiny mouth, and hopped back into the forest.
“Hey!” Gabby yelled. “I saw it first.” She laughed and ran after the fuzzy flower thief.
The rabbit zigged and zagged its way through the giant trees. Gabby ran faster than she thought she could. Just as the creature’s fluffy tail was in her reach, the rabbit darted to the left along the edge of a dried up river bed. Gabby tried to stop, but her body was moving too fast. She was airborne for a few moments until gravity pulled her right back down to the rocky ground.
“Dumb bunny,” Gabby grumbled. She looked at her bloody elbow and blew her hair out of her face. Everything hurt. She looked over her body to see if anything was obviously broken or missing. Aside from her elbow and scuffed knees and a rock poking her in the rear, she deemed herself ok. That is until she tried to stand. Then she realized that she had seriously hurt her ankle. She sat back down (beside the rock instead of on top of it this time) and placed her good ankle next to the bad. The bad one was about twice the size of the good one and slowly turning purple. “Dumb Gabby,” she whispered.
“Need a hand, darling?” a soft voice from above cooed.
Gabby jumped and bumped her elbow on a nearby rock.
“I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to startle you,” the beautiful young woman said. “Here, grab this, and I’ll hoist you up.” She lowered a thick branch down to Gabby. “I'm Carla.”
Once Gabby was lifted out of the bed, Carla looked her over head to toe, “Looks like you're hurt. Why don't you come back with me to my house. I have a few things for your cuts and bumps and sprains.”
Gabby, who was upright with the help of the branch, looked at Carla and watched her mouth spread into a kind, perfect smile, but she knew it wouldn't be right. She could hear Nona’s voice, “I don't care what they say, girl. Don't you ever go somewhere you never been with someone you don't know.”
“Do you think you can help me back to my village?” Gabby leaned on her makeshift crutch and turned herself towards the road. Fat raindrops began falling around the two.
“Certainly,” Carla nodded. Then, a flash of lightning lit the dark treetops and thunder echoed through the forest. “I'm afraid the clouds have other plans for us, dear. Come, my house is only a few minutes’ walk from here. Once the storm passes, I'll take you home.”
Before Gabby could reply, rain began to soak them both. Carla offered a hand. Gabby took it to steady herself as she limped along with her branch.
Carla's tiny house was dark but warm and inviting. A black pot bubbled in the fireplace. With Carla’s help, Gabby sat on an ancient and impossibly comfy chair. She sank in the cushions as Carla walked into the bathroom. A grey cat with mismatched eyes studied Gabby from his perch in the window sill. She smiled at him and waved. The cat blinked and turned around to watch the rain.
“I’ll grab a bandage. Keep your shoe on until I get back, ok?” Carla called.
“K,” Gabby yelled back. She looked down at her foot. Her ankle was hot and puffy. She wished she was at home. As much as she pretended to hate it, Gabby secretly loved it when Nona would fuss over her. It made her feel safe. Loved.
Carla hustled out of the bathroom and tossed a roll of bandages to Gabby, “Hold these. I’ll get something for the pain.”
“No pills, please,” Gabby pushed herself out of the chair to help her voice carry. The jostling hurt her ankle. Gabby had heard the “no talking to strangers” talk countless times, and, although Mama, Papi, and Nona always mentioned candy, she assumed she shouldn't accept medicine, either.
Carla emerged from the kitchen with a small jar and some long, skinny leaves. “Ugh,” her lips curled. “Of course not. Why take a bundle of chemicals created by some man in a laboratory when you can find everything you need in the forest?”
Gabby wasn't sure if she agreed, but she liked the idea of using natural medicines. She watched as Carla carefully removed her shoe. Her host’s hands moved gently but swiftly as she painted the white balm from the jar on her ankle with an old paint brush and wrapped the leaves up her leg from her heel to about halfway top to her shin.
Once she had wrapped a bandage around the leaves, Carla wiped her hands on her dress and blew her hair out of her eyes. “There. The swelling should go down in an hour, and the pain should be going away right about now.”
“Thanks,” Gabby said, looking not at Carla but her handiwork. “It doesn't even hurt anymore. What did you do?”
“The salve I painted on you is a mixture of eleven herbs and spices. I learned that a long time ago. It’s pretty amazing isn’t?”
“Yeah. What else do you know?”
“Oh, lots,” Carla replied with a smile that no longer seemed so warm. The house seemed colder now. A feeling of dread filled the air. The fireplace threw pointed, menacing shadows on the walls. The room was silent except for the rain hitting the roof.
“What’s your cat’s name?” Gabby blurted before Carla could break the silence.
“That’s Maxwell,” Carla’s eyes were fixed on Gabby’s.
“Have you had him long?” Gabby could feel her heart beating in her ears. She had no idea what was happening, but she was terrified.
“For ages” Carla said quietly. As she raised her hands to her brush her hair out of her face, a bolt of lightning flashed and filled the room with intense, white light. Gabby closed her eyes. When she opened them again, Gabby almost fainted. Where the beautiful young woman had once been now stood an old, bent witch. Gabby opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out.
The crone threw her head back and laughed. “I’m sorry girl, but the look on your face make all the theatrics worth it.” The crone wiped tears away from her hallow cheeks with a withered finger.
Gabby’s hands sunk into the arm of the chair. She pulled and twisted, but she was trapped. “Let me go,” the girl finally mustered.
The witch got so close to Gabby’s face their noses almost touched. “If I let you go now, what am I gonna eat, huh? Him?” she pointed to Maxwell who was still looking out the window. “He ain't big enough to fill my old belly! Why, a girl’s gotta eat, you know? And I only eat every twenty years, so when I do, it better be bigger than some mangy old puss. Besides, I already rubbed you down with the seasonings!”
Hot tears trickled down Gabby’s cheeks. “But why me? Why do you want to eat me?”
“Because nothing’s better for recharging the old black magic than a sweet, innocent little girl, and I'm running pretty low. Why, summoning that stupid storm about zapped me. Even becoming that bunny took a little too much effort for my liking.”
“You’re a shapeshifter?”
The witch turned her head to the side, “Duh!” She turned and stirred the pot on the fire, “Good thing the kid don't have to be smart to be filling.”
Gabby was about to shout out in protest, but she knew she’d be wasting her breath. She lowered her head and let the tears fall. Then, her head shot up. An idea that Gabby wasn’t entirely sure was her own had just flashed in the back of her mind. She swallowed hard and licked her lips. “You’re telling me that you can turn into anything?”
The witch scoffed, “Of course.” Then, her body shrank as her arms stretched. In a matter of moments, she was a vulture with greasy black wings. “See?”
Gabby's face twisted in confusion and disgust.
“You like that, do ya?” the crone teased. “Then you'll love this one.” She wrapped herself in her wings which quickly became paws. Her back hunched and her beak mutated into a muzzle packed with sharp teeth. The witch howled and licked her slobbery chops. “Bet I could make quick work of you like this, you think?”
Maxwell arched his back and hissed. The wolf witch looked up at him. “Everyone's a critic.” She changed back into her withered form.
Gabby finally gathered enough nerve to speak. “Is that all you can do? Rabbits, vultures, and wolves?”
A wry smile stretched across the witches thin lips. “No, my little morsel. I can be anything.”
“Anything.” The witch’s nose stretched to the ground and her belly ballooned as she grew so large that her back pushed up against the roof.
Gabby looked at the elephant. She had only seen them in books. “Is that the biggest you can get?”
“No.” The witch shrunk back to normal. Well, normal for a witch. “I can become a whale, but I'm afraid I'm a bit too weak for that.”
Gabby nodded. “I see, so smaller is easier?”
“Yup.” The witch turned to her pot “Takes less focus. I could, say, become a rabbit, run around for a bit, and then be a sweet, young lady to fool some curious brat without breaking a sweat.” She turned and gave Gabby a wink.
Gabby swallowed. She chose her words very carefully. She didn't know where this plan came from, but she knew it was her only chance. She took a deep breath and asked “Is a rabbit as small as you can get?”
“Nope,” the witch smiled. She was having fun now. The skin on her arms turned black and leathery. She jumped up and once her feet were off the ground, she was a bat. She fluttered around Gabby, nipping at her hair and cheeks.
Gabby screamed and whipped her head around. The witch cackled as her arms shrunk and a skinny, hairless tail grew from her backside. She scurried all over Gabby’s lap, scratching the girl's exposed skin with tiny nails.
“Now!” a voice Gabby had never heard before called from the back of her head. Gabby sat up as fast as she could, stretching every muscle in her legs (and severely aggravating her ankle), launching the mouse-witch high into the air. The old crone landed hard on the bare wood floor in front of the fireplace.
Gabby watched the tiny creature. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw it's furry chest rise and fall. She didn't want to kill the witch.
Before she could think any further, the tiny witch began to stir. She got up on her little paws and shook her head. The witch looked up at Gabby. A gray blur flashed across the room and pounced on the witch. Maxwell dug his claws deep into his prey’s sides and sunk his teeth deep into its throat. Gabby watched in horror as the cat devoured the mouse no differently than the millions of cats have devoured millions of mice before.
Once he was finished, in a voice just recently familiar to Gabby, Maxwell said without moving his mouth, “Normally, cats play with their prey, but as in sure you've already figured out, I'm no normal cat.”
“No,” Gabby whispered. “You're not.”
He looked down at what was left of the witch. Maxwell walked around the corpse and looked at the fireplace. He flicked his tail and batted the bloody, furry mass into the fire. The flames turned black and the room filled with the smell of rotten eggs and burnt hair.
Once the air had cleared and the flames returned to their normal orange-yellow, Gabby finally spoke up. “What happened? I mean, I know what happened. I saw everything. I guess I mean what's going on?”
Maxwell licked his paws. “Very simply, you aided me in destroying a rather nasty witch.”
“Aren't all witches nasty?”
“Most, dear, but not all. Some are quite helpful. Our late friend here was a friendly, helpful witch not seventy or eighty years ago. Most witches of the woods are.”
She leaned forward, just realizing that the chair had released her, “How so?”
“They keep the trees and flowers and plants healthy. Help lost travelers. See to sick animals. That sort of thing.”
“But why did she try to eat me?
Maxwell hopped into her lap. “She discovered Black Magic. She became addicted to its power. She could alter the weather, turn into animals, and…” He hesitated.
“Turn people into animals?”
Maxwell nodded. “I was her apprentice. I tried to save her, but the Black Magic had a hold of her. It changed her. For my troubles, she turned me into a cat.”
Gabby's brow furrowed. “Why didn't you turn back?”
“I don't know,” he sighed. “If only there were a new witch of the woods to figure it out.”
Maxwell jumped off her lap and walked down the hall. He looked back at Gabby. She hesitated for a moment. Finally, she lifted herself up using the arms of the chair and limped behind the cat, using the walls of the hallway to steady herself. At the end of the hall was a heavy wooden door with countless symbols etched into it. They all swirled down to the black door nob in the middle of the door.
“It's not locked” he said.
Gabby twisted the mob and the door swung gently open on its own. The room was filled with books, vials, plants, bottles containing liquids, powders, and smoke of every color, and, at the center of the room, a giant stone table.
Maxwell looked up to her, “Well?”
Gabby's eyes darted around the room. She smiled and looked down at her new friend. “When can I start?”