Tongues wagged about her, of course, as they will in a small place. One fellow said he saw her pop out of a cleft in a rock in broad day, and when he looked for a passage or cave had found nothing but the smooth black stone. Another said she had seen her walking with the shy roe deer often and once with an enormous brown bear, chatting away and pausing as if to listen, as if she were conversing about the weather or the year's chestnuts. The local boys dared each other to go down the path to her cottage and peer in the windows at night. None ever did, although they lied a good deal about it. Some of the older women brought little baskets of fruit or crocks of cream or preserves and left them in the hollow tree by the head of her path, where today someone had left a more strange and less welcome gift. The rough men of the forest left her clever fur bags they made of whole marten skins or stone jars of the spirit they distilled from elderberries in the fall while they waited for the ricks to burn down. These were plain people who still felt the weirdness of life's twists, and, God-fearing though they might be, they were also in the habit of making small sacrifices to keep on the good side of powers more strictly local.
They made up stories about the woman to pass the evenings and frighten the children into bed: how she could change her shape, becoming a raven or a red fox, how she could sour milk with a glance or spoil traps, what she did in her cottage to little boys and girls who did not mind their elders. These tales grew richer with the years; in the end, they called her a witch.
Such things used to happen often to women living alone and mostly no harm done, although when some old goose is treated as a witch and given little presents, she may get it into her head that she really has the power to make rain drop from the sky or two people fall in love, and then she might find herself in trouble.
But this particular woman was a real witch.
She was not wicked; but neither did she often go out of her way to do good. She was like some venerable mountain that in winter holds a cap of snow, which at any moment might send forth an avalanche. Around such a crag, therefore, one ought to walk tiptoe, although ordinarily the snow will relax into the full streams of spring without troubling the country.
This woman had a name, but no one in the forest knew it; a good thing, too, for if any there had uttered it, their tongues would have been scorched from their heads along with a good portion of the surrounding country. The people called her the Quiet Woman or Mrs. Forest or, more commonly, with a peculiar roll of the eyes or a shake of the head, "That One" or "Her." Everyone knew which Her was meant.
What the woman actually did with her time was quite different from what the people imagined. She did not ride on a broom nor visit the devil nor dine on children. Mostly she studied the world, both the parts that we all seemade up of rocks and flowers and rain and beetlesand the parts we don't see but which we may sometimes feel by a prickle of the scalp and a shiver down the back when we stand in a rustling wood and the clouds race across the full moon.
She knew how to listen. Even the stones had no secrets from her. Not only could she hear the words of animals, which many people can do, but also the voices of the flowers in the fields and the trees of the woods. And she could speak their various languages as well, and so was able to learn the secret wisdom locked in the great river of life that runs unbroken back to the making of the world.
With what she learned, she made magic and not just what we think of as magic nowadaysmaking the small large and the large small, making the soft hard and the hard soft, making up and down change placesalthough she could do that and more with less effort than you make to scratch your nose. No, what she spent most of her time doing was so strange that even the memory of the words that describe it has utterly vanished. You might say, if you had to say something, that she adjusted the pattern of things so that life flowed smoothly through time, the sun becoming the sunflower seed and the sunflower seed becoming the mouse, the mouse becoming the weasel and the weasel becoming the horned owl, the horned owl becoming the carrion fly, and round and round, ever changing, the patterns crisp and balanced as they danced to the unknowable tune.
From The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber, Copyright © 2005 by Michael Gruber. All Rights Reserved. HarperCollins Publishers.
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