In response to the United States Supreme Court overturn of Roe v. Wade and to consider the pending Haunted MTL Bodies womens’ anthology, here is another adult fairy tale…
Aileen was weary. The long journey through the dense forest had taken a toll. She leaned on a tree near the edge of the woods and rubbed her groin. She looked back at the path behind her. The breadcrumbs she had scattered had been eaten away by birds and small rodents. A few stray chipmunks remained, eyeing her from a distance. The narrow trail had filled in as she had moved along; vines, twigs and leaves consuming her footsteps and erasing them almost as soon as her feet had left the earth. No turning back now, Aileen turned to face the cottage.
The cottage loomed ominously in the small clearing before her. It was just a simple structure, and not nearly as terrifying as Aileen had pictured it. It seemed rather… cozy. The hag who lived within this isolated hovel hated outsiders and was distrustful of any who came near. Labeled a witch by the villagers, she kept to herself. She was outside gathering plants in a basket carried over her arm when Aileen spotted her. Their eyes met for a brief second. The old woman’s icy stare bore holes in time and space. Aileen gulped and sighed. She gently heaved herself up from her brief respite at the wood’s edge and approached cautiously, still clutching her heavy abdomen. This is why I’m here she reminded herself.
“Hello,” Aileen hailed.
As she trudged into the clearing, the old woman continued to stare at her, unmoving and unspeaking, like a wild animal startled from its reverie. Her white hair danced every which way around her and her throat flashed with every breath. Her eyes followed Aileen’s every shift in movement.
“I am Aileen,” she continued. “I came here to seek your help.” She held her empty hands aloft. “I mean you no harm.”
“I know why you’re here,” the crone interjected. “This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last.”
Aileen quieted a moment before continuing. “I am very sick.” She chose her words carefully, rubbing her belly. “The child that grows inside of me is making me ill. Something is dreadfully wrong. The Village Elders will do nothing.”
“The Elders are why I am here,” the old woman spat, glaring at Aileen. “I used to live in the village like you. I was forced here when they ransacked my home and set fire to my house and garden. They destroyed everything I had.”
“I am dreadfully sorry,” Aileen said. She had known of the witch’s treason, of how she had gone directly against the Elders’ orders to help others like herself. She knew of the banishment by the torchbearers and pitchfork wielders who had shown up on the woman’s doorstep, although it had happened when Aileen was far too young to remember. The Elders spoke of it often and had kept the defaced property as a warning to be heeded.
“We… we still need you.” Aileen’s voice grew heavy with her words. “I need you.”
Aileen drew nearer. She was close enough now to see the tiredness in the old woman’s eyes, the pain that haunted her every movement. They studied one another for a long while. The woods, the clearing, and the cottage lay in quietude as if sleeping all around them. They were both enveloped in silence.
The old woman was robust and hardy. She had endured much and it was written in every fold of her skin; every crease, every wrinkle bore signs of her past. Aileen was downtrodden, spent and weak. She could barely hold herself up. Her skin was pale and ghostly, her ashen complexion ill-fitted for a woman of her young age. She was with child, but her body bore the gift all wrong and off-kilter. She leaned to the side and gasped slightly as she drew each breath, her hand still clenched over her stomach region. The air only barely entered her lungs before trickling out again.
Finally, the old woman spoke. “You are very sick,” she said.
Aileen spoke again. “I desperately need your help. I cannot bear this child. Doing so will kill me. The Elders do not understand – they say it is all part of God’s Plan.”
The old woman spoke again. “I was young once, and carrying a child I did not consider my own, that was conceived not of my choosing. I ran away.” Her eyes softened. “I tried to resolve my situation on my own with some herbs I had acquired from a Medicine Man on the down low, way back before I knew what I was doing, and I almost died when I used them wrong.” The old woman studied Aileen and continued, “There was a woman not unlike me now in the village at that time. Her name was Bella. She helped me to recover from all that had happened to me. I stayed with her and studied her craft, so that I might safely help others like myself. Like yourself.”
“The Elders found our aid to be threatening. They claimed it went against God’s Will. Bella disappeared mysteriously without a word. I stayed to upkeep our house and garden and to continue her practice, and because it was important that we remain steadfast in our service. That was the very same home I was later forced to flee in order to keep my life,” the witch went on.
“I am truly very sorry for your loss,” Aileen spoke pensively, realizing that all of this was much larger than her self, much larger than the stories she had been told. “I do not mean to endanger you. I come alone, seeking your help. Beyond the stories that the Elders tell, I have only heard of you through hushed whispers under the table where prying ears cannot linger. That is how I learned that you had come here. In all of my searching for answers and desperately trying to find someone who could assist me, no one would even utter your name. They just told me that I needed to see the Witch of the Wood. It became a sort of unspoken understanding among those of us who could bear children as my condition grew worse.”
Aileen was in arm’s reach of the witch now, her gaze at her feet studying the soft ground between them.
“You needn’t know my name. My name is the babble on the brook, the cry of the lark, the dance of the wind through the willows,” the old woman whispered. She put her arm around Aileen, her grasp gentle but strong. The girl sobbed as the witch held her closer. “I can help you, but you will not be able to go back to the village. You are too far along and too many will notice the change. Others who have undergone such noticeable changes have been hung, or stoned, even burned at the stake. You will be in grave danger if you return, as will I for assisting you.”
Aileen looked up at her and nodded. The fear in her eyes gave way to a sense of solace, to an understanding that in order to save her own life she would have to leave everything she knew and all that she loved and held dear. It wasn’t fair but it was necessary. The witch was right; she had seen what had become of others who had lost their babies early. She should have come sooner, but she had been so afraid, both of what was happening to her and of the unknown outcome. Perhaps there was another way.
“Can I stay then, with you? Like you did with Bella. To learn all that I can, so that I may one day help others like you have?”
The witch smiled. “If it pleases you to do so, you may stay afterwards as long as you wish and learn what you can. Many have come and gone before, and have left for distant lands unknown to us to help those who have needed it. We are not alone.”
“I would appreciate that very much,” Aileen said, resigned to her fate. A smile crept across her face, offering hope. “Thank you.”
The witch answered, “No need to thank me. Not now and not later. I do this because I don’t want any to have to suffer as I have, as too many of us have. I do this because these circumstances are more complicated and varied than the Elders will acknowledge.” She smiled back at Aileen. “I will gladly help you, as I have those before and those yet to come. You are welcome to join us in this… And you can call me Abuela.”
For another terrifying adult themed fairy tale, read The Fur Coat as posted on Haunted MTL back in the day. Feel free to check out more of Jennifer Weigel’s work here on Haunted MTL or on her writing, fine art, and conceptual projects websites.