Excerpt of The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber
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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.