They said that the witch lived in the Yellow Wood.
Jessie found the witch on a bright summer’s day, when running barefoot from Bobby Allen’s gang through a maze of golden hazel trees. She was on the eve of turning sixteen, spirited and lovely. She disappeared like smoke in the air.
Of course, we didn’t know about Bobby then. We didn’t know about the boys on their bikes or the other girls lying under dirt at the forest’s edge. All we knew was that Jessie’s blood streaked the ground, and her footprints stumbled to the old hanging tree.
The village kids avoided that elm. No one stretched out on its broad limbs or smoked up amid its roots or played near its trunk. We teenagers pretended we could still see the rope grooves that had cut into its bark and never healed. The tree was the oldest thing for a mile around, and a little plaque in Town Hall honored all the women who’d died under its ill-used branches. It was meager compensation for injustice hundreds of years past.
The tree stood tall and quiet on the day Jessie went missing. We sat home in uneasy silence while the whole town followed Sheriff Allen’s boys and their barking dogs into the woods. My mom took our shotgun down from the dresser before she left, just in case.
But they never found Jessie. She was long gone, nothing left behind but a pair of bright blue shoes down by the mill creek. Her blood sprinkled the pale leaves, pretty in the sunshine.
It was her blood that started it, we think. It woke the witch where she slept, like a sacrifice, though I don’t think she’d been asking for one.
Anna Mae disappeared next. No blood this time - she was just gone one morning, as quiet as can be. Like she’d unlocked the door and stepped outside.
The kids started to say –
Any village old as ours has its stories, and our Yellow Wood had seen more widows and spinsters hung than all of Salem. It doesn’t take much to spin a tale from that, and my grandpa passed it down the way every generation did –
As the story went, the village marshal and a local reverend had caught the witch in deep midwinter. They found her bent at her work in the darkness, hands soiled with blood and earth, incantations spilling from her lips. In the yawning grave at her feet lay every girl to vanish since the autumn harvest.
The good father bound and gagged the witch, and when the rope around her neck hung taut, the disappearances ceased.
I started camping out in my siblings’ room every night and walking them to school every day. Jamie and Sam – girl and boy – were inquisitive and lively with flyaway hair and sticky fingers. The kind of kids you love more than your own heartbeat, even when they make you mad fit to strangle them. I didn’t let them out of my sight until they were through the classroom doors, not for any of those summer months.
Children are chatterboxes, and less-than-sensible teachers are worse, so the rumor spread fast around school: A rope could be seen hanging from the elm at night, rotting its way to the carpeted earth.
“I think it keeps her bound to the tree,” Jamie said with all the authority of her eleven-and-a-half years. “It keeps us safe, if we don’t go into the Yellow Wood.”
No one actually thought it was a witch snatching teenage girls from their beds. Not really. But this is untamed countryside, and superstitions run deep in the badlands. Mom hummed to herself while pouring salt along the windowsills and stowing her shotgun under the dresser. She checked on us when she wasn’t working, last thing before she went to bed and first thing after she woke up.
She was there when we had the nightmare. When we dreamt of hollow limbs and fluttering – cloth – leaves – hair – coiled in rope. Of that rope withering away and a skeletal body set free to fly at us from the blackness of our bedroom. Of the tree bursting through seams in our walls, grasping and dragging us down to its cold roots.
Jamie and I woke in screaming hysterics.
The town woke in screaming hysterics. Every girl under the age of twenty-three had seen the same nightmare.
We met our priest at the Town Hall, my family and countless others packed into an airless room. The sheriff came too, looking worried as all hell. Not much his bullets could do, we thought privately, but he took an interest all the same. They were men of the town, both of them, with long histories here. They wanted to put the witch down.
An exorcism could banish her evil spirit, the priest assured us. Cast the demons out of the tree and the witch would leave.
At least, that’s how it might have happened if I hadn’t been woken the next night by a creak in the floorboards. Just Mom home from the night shift, I thought – but it was a stranger’s footsteps in the hall and a stranger’s whisper at our door. A stranger trying the doorknob and finding it locked.
The witch had come for me, or for Jamie.
Not on my watch, I thought. Not my blood, not my sister, not over my dead body.
I didn’t breathe as I slipped from my covers and crawled in darkness to my siblings’ beds. My hand shook as I yanked at their blankets, fingers taut around grandma’s crucifix. The twins pulled from sleep with grumbles and groans, but there was no time - no time to explain, no answer for the panic they saw in my eyes –
I hauled Sam and Jamie from their beds, tore aside the window curtains, fumbled the lock, and threw open the screen. The door rattled behind us. We scrambled across the sill in blind panic, scraping and bruising against the old brick. I shoved the kids ahead of me into the balmy night air.
Run into town, I told myself, and then the door flew open.
But it wasn’t a witch that entered our room.
It was Bobby Allen, the sheriff’s kid, and his group of drudge boys.
They didn’t expect to see us standing there outside the window, a wild-haired teenager clutching her dirty-kneed siblings, all three wide awake. We wasted precious moments frozen and gaping.
Sam pulled at my hand, waking me from my daze. I grabbed him and Jamie and we ran, our feet bare on the gravel, the wind rustling our pajamas. Jamie pointed ahead to where the sheriff’s cruiser was waiting in the dark along our road. It was a sign of law, safety, sanity – but in that second I knew. I knew.
We ran into the woods.
We ran into the woods because I wouldn’t trust the men who had made Jessie and Anna Mae disappear, who had stolen them from their families and their lives.
I led us over sharp rocks and brambles with heart pounding, legs shaking, lungs gasping for air. Our feet flayed open against the forest floor. Behind us there was shouting and cursing, then the rumble of small engines.
We fell into the clearing with the boys and their motorbikes right on our heels. The moon was round overhead. There stood the tree, tall and ancient, seeming to tilt on the wind. From its thickest branch hung a decaying rope, its end tangled in the grass and tossing leaves.
“Now, it doesn’t need to be like this,” said the sheriff behind me. Our priest stood abreast of him, out of breath, hands up and placatory. “Just come along back with us, no need for more misunderstandings.”
I shoved the little ones behind me and backed towards the tree. My bleeding feet slid across the ground, and a gust kicked up the mottled leaves to skitter around our ankles. I saw the boys start to move and the sheriff’s hand on his gun.
I reached up with all my strength and tore the rope from the tree limb.
The air caught fire and shook apart as something screamed. The earth buckled and cracked all around us. Bark split, branches unfurled, and the tree pushed a ragged figure out into the dark.
The witch was whole and skeleton all at once, her face twisted in fury. She walked in threadbare robes through the dry grass, and her arms when she raised them were nothing but sinew and bone and –
And I was not afraid.
The fire swept up all around her as she pointed a gaunt finger at the men standing, trembling, falling to their knees at the center of the clearing. We felt no pain as the flames rushed hot against our skin. They encircled us, rising to the treetops across the blazing divide.
When the witch spoke her voice was old as the Wood, unyielding as the elm, and deep as the waters of the creek.
“You,” she said.
There was no sound but her voice. All I could see was the dark shapes of our attackers on the ground, hands up in supplication, faces ashen in the flickering light. But –
“Never again,” said the witch. “Never again.”
They disappeared into the flames without a sound, and the witch screamed exultation in her lake of fire, head tilted to the sky, arms held aloft. For a moment she was beautiful, skin smooth, hair wild.
Then she was gone and the clearing was empty. Empty of everyone except myself, my siblings, and two others.
Jessie and Anna Mae lay curled around one another in the roots of the tree. Their faces were peaceful, their breathing slow and even.
And as the sun rose, they woke.