In her cottage in the woods, the witch brewed her birch twig tea and waited for the arrival of the young couple who wished to conceive. Her blue-green eyes glowed with the power of sight as she watched them from a bird’s eye view. She blinked the sight away. She went to the fireplace and threw another enchanted log onto the burning pile. Neon purple smoke curled upward, escaping out the chimney, alerting the tired travelers that their destination was near.
The witch’s bony fingers wrapped around the mug atop her tiny wooden table. She brought the steamy drink to her thin lips and watched through a round glass window. Two figures stepped from the dark forest path into the clearing. A rattling squeal erupted at her feet as three of her fox pups nervously circled her. They felt her weary anticipation of humans entering their den.
She set the mug down and went to the door. She paused for a moment to steady herself as memories of the war slammed into her chest like a detonation wave. She placed her hand on the rough sawn white oak door, letting the wood remind her that she was safe from attack. The war was over. Her cottage—simple, but sturdy—was built by a carpenter she’d known in the early post-war years. She often thought of him when a new couple sought her help. The carpenter and his partner were the recipients of the first life spark she’d made. She exchanged it for the building of her home. That time, the spark had not returned. Later, she upgraded the formula. She hummed a soothing noise at the foxes. They hushed their barks and chattering. Ten of them surrounded her inside the cottage, like a roiling red-orange sea.
The witch opened her cottage door and waved to the couple as bundles of fur spilled out around her bony legs. The pups ran and hopped and rolled in the clover on the ground in front of her, their anticipation heightened beyond control. They barked and the witch resisted the urge to bark with them. The woman and man froze to watch the foxes’ display, their fear easing as they saw the harmlessness of the playful animals. The couple looked too young to have been born during the war; their generation had only known peace.
“We saw the purple smoke.” The man pointed at her roof, speaking loudly to be heard over the noise of the gekkering foxes. “Are you the wit—I mean, the woman—who helps people conceive?”
“Come inside,” she responded, trying to force a smile. She’d need another cup of birch tea to help her twisted old face. “I’ve been expecting you.”
The young woman buried her head into her partner’s arm. He patted her back. “Come on, Brygida, we’ve traveled so far.”
The witch knew the couple had tried, but the magic of their seeds was too weak. Too far removed from the old gods, she thought. War chased away life. Some call it fertility, the witch called it the spark. In the time of dirty machines—before the forests regrew—men and women, women and women, and men and others conceived children without thought. After the last great war, the rebuilders discovered the trouble. The missing sparks angered many, but there was no more desire to fight. The peace treaty was amended to allow those in tune with nature to experiment with new ways to give life. The witch found the forest clearing for her home soon afterwards.
Once inside the cottage, the witch motioned for the couple to sit on two stools near the fire. She wrinkled her nose at their antiseptic-clean lavender aroma. It was a city scent that reminded her of her days as a prisoner of war. They wrinkled their noses as well. The witch assumed they didn’t appreciate the vixen musk she’d built up over the months since she’d visited the river. She stood in front of the fireplace and stared at them, until the discomforting silence forced the man to speak.
“We want a child.”
“Why?” she asked. The rapidity and harshness of her response made the young woman look up in surprise. The witch glared arrows at Brygida and asked again, “Why?”
“We don’t have to explain ourselves to her, Lowry,” the woman said into her partner’s chest as she pivoted away from the witch’s piercing stare.
“Brygida, please. We want this. What does it matter if she asks questions?” He turned his face to the witch. “We want a child because we want to see our love manifested in our offspring.”
The witch tapped a bony finger to her hairy chin. She knew they were desperate enough to have made the trip into the woods. She began negotiating.
“We must determine a trade if you are to receive a life spark.”
“We brought money,” Lowry said.
“What use have I for money?” She laughed—a short barking laugh that was echoed by the foxes, who’d filled the small cottage floor around the couple. She petted one of their soft heads and purred at the pup. The young woman pulled her arms into her chest, shrinking away from the excited pack.
“Then what do you want?” The bitterness in Brygida’s voice was clear.
“You must take a vow that when I know what I want from you, it will be mine.” She looked into the purple blaze of the fire, the flames dancing on the logs. This was the moment when she truly judged the couples. The man seemed worthy enough, but she had her doubts about the woman.
“What does that mean? Lowry, we can’t give up something without knowing what it is!”
He settled her by murmuring into her ear. Brygida nodded as he squeezed her hands. He was the stronger one.
The witch took two chicken eggs from a basket—one dyed teal, one dyed purple—and held them up for inspection.
“We will do what you ask,” Lowry said, “but will the child really be ours?”
She tilted her head at him, as she placed a cauldron over the fire. She decided Lowry was worthy of the purple egg and Brygida would have the teal.
“Don’t stare into the abyss, if you wish to fulfill your lives with a child of the woods.” The witch dropped the two eggs into the boiling cauldron and stirred the concoction. “They will look like you and they will love you. What else could you want?”
The couple was quiet as the eggs cooked. The witch lifted them out of the cauldron with a skimmer spoon and set them on a towel to cool. The teal and purple colors of the shiny wet shells were brighter and glowing.
“This is the beginning after the end,” she said, peeling the cooled eggs and holding them out to the couple.
“The end of what?” Brygida cautiously took the teal egg.
“The end of your childless days,” the witch said, this time not bothering with an attempt at a smile. She placed the purple egg into Lowry’s hand. “Now, eat.”
With the life spark spell consumed by the young couple, she gave them instructions for conceiving their child and sent them away.
After the war ended, after she moved to the cottage in the woods, she lost herself in the ways of the forest. Her fox pups found their way to her, one-by-one over the years. She was careful to space out their arrivals, so no one in the cities put together the puzzle when they shared the rumor of the witch in the woods who sold the spark. She often sat by her fire, petting her skulk of foxes, and tried to remember what the war was fought over. She only remembered the children it took from her.
With eyes glowing blue-green, she watched the young couple leave her clearing, their bellies full of magic eggs and their hearts full of hope. Lowry would make a beautiful fox pup for her pack. She would know the right moment to call him home, sometime after the child was born. Brygida would have to cherish their offspring, as so many mothers did after the war; alone.
Meg Murray (she/her) is a queer writer living in Colorado, with her spouse, four children, and rescue dog. She writes speculative fiction stories about personal autonomy and motherhood, as well as all things nature-related and eco-hopeful. Her work has been published in Solarpunk Magazine, HyphenPunk Magazine, TL;DR Press, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter (@megmurraywrites) and online (megmurraywrites.com).
photo by Jeremy Hynes (via unsplash)