Palo Alto Weekly 31st Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Adult

Her Heart's Desire

By Owen B. Greenwald

About Owen B. Greenwald

Owen B Greenwald, 24, was born in Manhattan. He moved to San Mateo at a young age, fell in love with the Bay Area almost immediately, and currently resides in Menlo Park with his girlfriend, Jenna Griffith. He graduated from Brown University in 2015 with degrees in literary arts and writing for performance, as well as a Weston award for excellence in playwriting. His six-book series, The Big Bet, was written during his final year of college and released not long after. Owen is currently working on a seventh novel with friend and fellow author Paul Kivelson. His interests include theater and ballroom dance.

 

Inspiration:
I have always been drawn to subversion of familiar narratives. Old cliches become fresh and inviting through the reimagining of circumstance, motive, or tone. The old witch that offers a dark bargain is one of these that I found particularly inviting – and I hope readers have a different impression of the Witch at the end than when they began. Witches are generally outcasts. For this reason, some of my contemporaries feel a kinship with her – and at times, envy. It is these misaligned souls that I felt impelled to honor and vindicate, and their feelings of loneliness and otherness that I drew upon as I explored how these feelings develop over time.

 

Judge's comments

A little girl visits a wise old witch in the forest and learns what to wish for. The characters come alive on the page, and so does the beautifully described forest. A charming fairy tale containing much wisdom and much humor.
-- Nancy Packer

They called her Old Yellow-Eyes, or Forest Watcher, or Night Hag, or any of another dozen names. It didn't matter how many she accumulated, because they all meant witch, were always spat with that same implicit curse and a quick gesture to ward off bad luck. If you listened closely enough, you could hear the fright, hiding deep below the hatred.

People fear what they don't understand, and nobody understood the Witch.

But fear wasn't enough to keep them away — it was humbled before the power of their greed. No amount of fear could have dissuaded them from seeking their heart's desire, and so they came. Even knowing her price, they came.

Not often. One every few years, perhaps. Just enough to keep alive the legends of an ancient woman with sunken yellow eyes, wrinkled gray skin, a permanent hobble and a tangled jungle of white hair beneath a tattered hood ("If she lowers the hood, it's too late for you", they'd say), praying to the Devil in her hut at the center of the forest.

It was a cracked little hovel wedged into the side of a large rock. Vines had grown up around the loose wood, knitting disparate logs into serviceable walls and filling whatever gaps remained. The vines were thickest in summer, but withered and died in winter. Then great snows threatened the integrity of the walls and roof, and piled outside her door, and set her aged bones shivering against each other. The forest became treacherous during those months, even more so than usual, and nobody — nobody — dared brave the journey, not even for their heart's desire.

Which made the knock at her door one cold winter afternoon, so forceful as to almost cave it in, all the more surprising.

The Witch pursed her lips in suspicion. Then she resumed her stirring, clockwise strokes with a large wooden spoon. Twelve... thirteen... fourteen... The fire beneath the cauldron crackled and sent off sparks, and the Witch wrapped her cloak tighter.

The knock came again, louder, and the door groaned in protest.

"Enter," croaked the Witch without rising from her stool. If someone had fought their way through the killing weather of the winter forest to her door, they had to be desperate indeed, and desperate meant dangerous and unpredictable. The Witch was no stranger to the desperate — those who turned to the old magics for aid usually were — and so she watched the entrance craftily, prepared for anything.

But when the door opened, there was only a girl, eight if she was a day, leaning on a walking-stick, teetering with exhaustion and frostbite and who knows what else, poor thing, just what reason had she —

"In, quickly," said the Witch, and now there was urgency in that lined face. "By the fire."

It didn't appear at first that the girl would obey. She stood defiantly in the doorway, shivering, but unwilling to come any closer. Then a howling gust swept through the trees — causing the cauldron-fire to flicker ominously — and she half-darted, half-fell into the hovel. The door closed behind her.

"By the fire," the Witch repeated. "Or your errand will outlive you."

She stood, leaning heavily on her cane, and turned to the wall behind her, where the rock had been cut away into shelving. Potions, unguents, oils, philters, vulneraries... ah. "Drink this."

The child folded her arms and clamped her mouth together tightly.

"Do it or I won't help you." The Witch had no patience for difficult visitors, not even children. "I'll throw you out of my house."

Haltingly, the girl unfolded herself. The fire was having its effect, restoring brightness to her eyes and color to her brown cheeks. One shaking arm reached for the bottle the Witch held between bony fingers.

Out came the stopper. The girl probed the neck with her tongue, suspicious, then tilted the bottle slightly and let a drop fall on her tongue. Three big gulps later, the bottle was empty.

"Warm," she said.

The Witch nodded once.

The child's eyes, wide as the sky, were now taking in the Witch's home. Her hand had found her walking-stick and she held it close, for comfort, while she thawed.

"I know why you've come," said the Witch, when she was sure her guest would survive the conversation. "Are you not scared, knowing the cost you incur in the asking?"

"I'm not scared."

The Witch could taste her lie on the air. She was scared. Scared of the many colored flasks adorning the walls, of the shifting shadows clinging to the corners, of the webs lining the ceiling.

Of the crone she'd come to entreat for her heart's desire.

But fright or none, she was the youngest visitor in the Witch's long memory. And she showed no sign of backing down, knuckles white around her wood, still shivering from the journey. She faced her fear head-on, without apology, and for that, she deserved respect.

The Witch tried to remember what it was like to be a child. But it had been so very, very long ago.

"Surely, you were warned about me — or haven't you heard that I eat children like you?"

The girl raised her stick. "If you try and eat me, I'll whack you!"

The Witch's face twisted in what would have been a smile if her mouth could remember how. Such spirit! She'd shown more courage than the last half-dozen already.

"Then name your boon, and I will grant it."

There was silence then, save for the winds outside howling through the cracks in the walls.

Then, "I want winter to go away and never come back. I want the plants to grow every day. I want all the snow to be melted. Forever and ever."

It took a lot to shock the Witch after all the years she'd lived, but that was enough. Her yellow eyes clouded beneath her hood as she looked with new concern upon the shy, slim-faced girl who had just wished for a warm winter — and unwittingly, the end of her peoples' way of life.

The Witch could have simply refused. But the oath she'd sworn decades before still held power, even if only to her, so she did what she always had. She warned.

"The consequences," she hissed through withered lips, "would be dire, child. A most severe bane indeed. Ruin upon your family for centuries to come."

The warnings eased her conscience, though the fools never listened. Poor Gideon Fletcher, for example — she remembered the man well. He'd desired a fortune in gold. She'd tried to dissuade him, but he'd insisted, and, compelled by the oath, she'd granted his wish. Not two weeks later, he was rotting in a field, throat slit, his killer spending his coin on a new herd.

Always the same tale. Shortsighted men tempted by easy gains and blundering into misfortune, too foolish to be frightened off by the legends and too rash to heed her portents.

That was a small matter. The disasters they invited were far smaller in scope; their greed harmed only themselves. The chaos that the young girl's wish would bring... The Witch

needed no augury to know that the planet would not long survive it.

"You know the legends," said the Witch when the girl hesitated. "I grant your heart's desire. And I bestow upon you a Bane, equal in part to what you have been granted. My visitors are cursed, young one, and if you ask this of me, so will you be."

Her lip quavered at that, and her face lost some of that fierce defiance. "But I gotta."

"Explain."

"We don't have any more food," said the child. "We ate it all. Mommy says the plants are hiding in the ground until the snow goes away, but we need the food now."

It was suddenly obvious to the Witch that the girl's shivers could not be attributed to cold alone.

"Daddy keeps going out to chop wood, but there's no more trees close by so he has to walk far. And walking far is dangerous."

"You must have walked very far indeed," said the Witch, and the girl looked slightly bashful.

"I'm gonna be in big trouble."

"I will send you back safely, of course," said the Witch. "The forest obeys me still, though it can be willful. But child, you should know the price of what you ask."

As she spoke, she plucked with gnarled fingers at the vapor rising from her cauldron, arranging it into translucent, ephemeral shapes. Trees, fields, the beating sun.

"It is true, summer is a time of plenty. Plants grow high and green for the harvest, that the farmers may store the surplus for winter, when the ground lies barren. So it has been since the Earth began, and many the family whose stores have not outlasted the snowfall. Winter is harsh, child, harsh indeed."

The steam eddied and swirled about her fingers, forming a blizzard that swept through the vapor-trees and blew them apart into trails of mist.

"It is an easy thought to have, that an eternal summer would coax the plants to bear eternal fruit. Alas, it is less simple than it appears. To create fruit, even for a season, is a taxing burden, and to do so all year-round is beyond even the mightiest trees. They cannot maintain their beautiful green leaves, you see. They fade and fall so very quickly. Do you sleep at night, child?"

The girl nodded, spellbound, and the vapors traced the image of a young girl tucked beneath a blanket.

"So do the trees, and the bushes, and the grasses. But their sleep lasts a season, and to disturb their rest would sap them of their strength until they died. And then they would never produce fruit again, no matter how warm the sun."

She glared across the cauldron, through the now-formless mist. "Now do you see why you must not wish this thing, child?"

Frantic nodding. The Witch felt a small stab of satisfaction — here was one who listened. When had she last spoken with one of those? Years upon years, perhaps longer.

"The legends are false, you see." It was an idea that was still difficult to give voice to, one she had long ago given up on correcting. She believed them herself, sometimes, for it was easier, so much easier, to let herself play the part her visitors expected. "There is no inherent Bane to the favors I bestow -- merely consequence, born of change in the world. Just as in nature, every change brings with it good and bad. Protect the deer from the wolves, and they will graze the bushes to the root. And then there will be no more deer, and no more wolves, and no more bushes besides."

She stared with fading vision into the fire and saw only the mistakes of the past.

"I warned them of the changes their wishes would bring." Her voice was heavy with bitterness. "Still they asked. Is it any wonder they'd blame me when my warnings came true?"

A pattern of boon and Bane that had gripped the village's collective mind until it had etched itself into folklore and passed down without question until it no longer mattered whether a person's misfortunes were tied to what they'd received. Desmond Robinson's newly attractive features hadn't lost him his finger to that ox cart, but she'd been blamed for it all the same.

"That is what it is to be a Witch," she said, absentmindedly stirring. "To comprehend the web of action and consequence that connects all things. For all my power, I would be lost without the understanding of what that power's use invites."

"You don't really eat children, do you?" The question was out before her inquisitive mouth could swallow it, with all the bewildered wonder of a girl who has just come to understand the universe a little better.

The Witch made a coughing sound that might have been laughter in a previous life. "They say such foolish things. I don't even eat animals, child."

"Why?"

"Because I value what they can teach more than the taste of their flesh."

The child considered this, mouth a puzzled "O". She looked almost relaxed now, curled up against the fire, walking-stick nestled in the crook of her arm, face free of her former wariness.

"I have a new wish," she declared. "Since the other one was bad."

She hesitated momentarily, gathering courage.

"I want you to tell me how you do magic. I wanna be a witch like you."

The Witch made no reply for a long while, huddled beneath her cloak, trying vainly to fight the warmth that had started spreading through her chest at the child's declaration...

"That wish," she said at last, forcing the words up through a rebellious throat, "carries with it a dire Bane indeed. For all the wonders you learn, you will grow apart from those important to you, year by year. They will distrust your knowledge, child, and they will fear you for it — in time, that fear will grow into hate. You will struggle to please them, help them however you can, even make solemn oath to do whatever they wish of you, and it will not be enough. They will see only what they do not understand, and cannot control. To mankind, such a being is the ugliest creature alive."

And she lowered her hood.

Two sunken yellow eyes stared out of a face shriveled from long years of neglect, discolored by the march of time that no magics could indefinitely delay. There was apprehension in those eyes, and vulnerability too, and a little pleading. The Witch never would have admitted that, not even to herself, but they were there all the same.

It would have been most selfish not to show the child the full consequence of her heart's desire, no matter how the Witch longed to hide the truth.

But she laughed — bright, joyous laughter that filled the hut to the rafters and set the cauldron-mist swirling. "But you're like my grandma!"

For the first time in years, a true smile brushed across the Witch's face.

The child left some time later, but she did so with food, and a bag of powder that would burn as surely as any firewood. The trees bent out of her way, and the animals kept silent watch until she reached the edge of town.

In springtime, she returned to that hovel in the woods, where the Witch was waiting for her.

And when the Witch — or Old Yellow-Eyes, or Forest Watcher, or Night Hag, or any of another dozen names — reached the end of her life some years later, there was someone to mourn and bury her — a tall young woman of 17, who ran with the deer of the forest, who concealed her dark hair beneath a hood, and whom the townsfolk whispered consumed the souls of the lost.

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