The moon was full on the night that I ran away. The dark night opened wide to me, lighting the path brightly with a blue glow and casting strange shadows in the wilderness alongside it. I had been planning my escape for years, but I need not have waited so long. She never once looked out her kitchen window. She knew this forest and its dangers, its deepest, darkest corners—she didn’t worry whether I would come back or not.
As I ran down the stone path, through holly and under oak, I heard her chuckling to herself. The smell of freshly baked gingerbread, my favorite, wafted on the cool night air. The smell seemed to swirl and catch around my legs, slowing me down. I looked back, but she had turned away, her hunched shoulders shaking with mirth. I almost stopped there and then, almost went back to her, that old witch, but just then the clouds moved from over the moon, stark white and luminous. There may never be redemption for her, I thought, but it’s not too late for me. I started back down the path towards the forest.
I hoped to find a river, a broad and strong river that could take me to the sea. For I’d heard stories, you see, of its salty spray, never ending waves and the seafoam horses, white and delicate that rode its crests. The creeks in this wood could never take me there, twisted and confused as they were, but that was my dream, and it gave me hope.
As I traveled I picked up leaves along the way. I had learned a little while in her employ, as you might call it. Birch leaves with spots would make you sick in your bowels, but oak leaves with rounded ends would give you strength and bravery. The willow could call you to melancholy but the dogwood gave you nourishment. I gathered these and more, but the one leaf I desired the most, the one from a tree she had called the Silver Needle was nowhere to be found. She had said that this leaf would guide you where you needed to go, its delicate tip pointing like the needle of a compass. I could still see her shaking her head, rats nest hair stiff and unmoving as she dropped a handful of these leaves into the small hearth fire.
After years of enduring her cruelty and her ever-wagging tongue, the hush and quiet of the evenings were an unexpected gift. The pine needles made a sweetly scented bed to lie in and I found sustenance in the tubers of the earth. The rotten stench of mortal fear and death in that house had lurked beneath the sugar and the sweet. I gulped the clean pine scented air hungrily and reveled in my solitude. I sat down in it like I sat down in the cool sandy creek and drank great huge mouthfuls of it.
Often I’d just sit crosslegged in the water and count my ribs over and over again, tracing their underskin lines with my fingers. Some days I’d hear footsteps, little and tentative along the bank. I would spring from my obsessive reveries like a wild beast to howl and beat the ground, eyes rolling, hands extended like claws. I chased them, screeching in terror, away from the direction of her house, hoping they’d find another way of the wood besides her oven. Their only hope and probably mine as well was finding that Silver Needle leaf.
I began to search for it, feverishly, singlemindedly. Some days that was all I did, going hungry or thirsty, without shelter. Yet I never found it, not once did I even glimpse a brittle piece of one. I grew thin, desperate. When I slept I used to dream of the salty ocean waves, but now the dreams that came to me were ones of desperation in which I roamed the woods in an endless and futile search.
Then one night a realization came to me like a pine cone on the head. How naïve I’d been, how ignorant! The trees were gone, she’d hunted every one and destroyed them all, leaf and root. We would never find our way, I or the children and for the first time in my life, I wept, my heart breaking from the pain of it. The tears rolled down my cheeks and hit the ground like great salty raindrops. I cried for days, my eyes lost in sore puffs of swollen skin.
When finally I had worn myself out with the weeping, I sat drained, empty as a corn husk. When the little footsteps fell soft on the fallen leaves, I stood up slowly in the water, my legs a little wobbly. Taking a deep breath and closing my eyes, I crashed upwards out of the creekbed. Matted hair wild, baring my teeth in a fiendish growl I leapt into the air and stomped my feet on the ground. When there was no answering screech of terror, I opened my eyes and to my surprise there before me was no bairn at all but the squatty old bag. Her eyes were dark and smiling. She held out her hand to me, gnarled and swollen with age.
As I watched her fingers open, beckoning me to her, I thought of her warm kitchen and my soft bed. As her magic began to sink its teeth into my heart, I saw her holding me close by the fire, tending to the fly bites that dotted my filthy skin, brushing out my matted hair and tenderly, tenderly stroking my brow as I shifted to pick up another ginger cookie. I sighed as I moved towards her, longing, needing. But I had a little magic of my own and when her hand closed tight like an iron shackle on my wrist I shook her spell from me like a dog shakes dirty water from its fur.
When I leapt at her, I saw the look of surprise in her dark eyes and was gratified. Then I saw the look of supreme relief as she opened her arms wide to me. I fell upon her like a wolf in the dark of the wood. She made no noise, save a soft sigh at the end as she opened the hand she had offered me and a small seed rolled out to fall upon the bloodied loam of the forest floor. Seed of the Silver Needle tree and I smiled, her blood dripping red and thick from my teeth, for it seemed even she was not beyond redemption.
I went back to the candied house that same night no longer a slave, but as a free soul. I buried her body just out of the yard then planted the seed over her remains. It grows healthy and strong. When the children come to my cottage, drawn to the heady scent of baking ginger, I give them a bite to eat and a leaf from the Silver Needle tree then I send them on their way with many dire warnings to be careful in the wood, dreaming still of the blue ocean’s cool breeze and its salty, salty spray.
Copyright 2008 Laura Heilman, Wildwood Mama