Once upon a time, in a faraway country, there was a woman who
lived by herself in the middle of a great forest. She had a little cottage and
kept a garden and a large gray cat. In appearance, she was neither fair nor
ugly, neither young nor old, and she dressed herself modestly in the colors of
stones. None of the folk who lived nearby (not the oldest of them) could tell
how long she had dwelt in that place.
One spring morning, the woman set off to collect some plants she needed. As she glided silently along, she studied a list she had made, for she tended to be absentminded about small things. She passed the old oak tree, lightning killed and half hollow, where the local people were accustomed to leave things for her, and there she heard an odd little cry. She stopped and looked, and saw that in the hollow was a wicker basket. Have they left me a piglet? she wondered. But when she came closer, the basket shook and she heard the unmistakable cry of a new baby. There was a note in a crude hand tied to the handle of the basket, which read:
The devil's child
For the devil's wife
"Well, well," said she to herself, "let us see what some rude
person has left." She opened the basket and looked in. "Oh, my!" she said aloud,
as she beheld the ugliest baby boy that she, and perhaps anybody, had ever seen.
He had a piggish snout and close-set eyes of a peculiar yellowish color. His
mouth, wide and floppy, was already full of square little grinders. He was
covered in coarse dark hair resembling the bristles of a hog; and his ears were
huge and pointed like a bat's. His body was also oddly shaped, like a sack of
stones, and his feet were far too large. Of all his features, his hands alone
might be called good, their long delicate fingers flexing as the stubby arms
He seemed healthy enough, and when the woman reached down and touched his cheek with the backs of her fingers, he gave a lusty cry and rooted with his mouth for her thumb.
"Hungry, are you?" she asked. "Don't you know that witches are supposed to eat babies, not feed them?" The ugly baby gurgled and pushed harder against her hand. His yellow eyes looked hungrily into her gray ones. She felt a magic older than even her own flicker between them, and it startled her.
"What am I thinking of?" she said. "How could I keep a baby? I have never been sentimental before." She addressed the baby. "You will make a meal for the lynx or the gray wolf. This is your fate." She moved her hand away and turned to go, but the little thing, feeling the withdrawal of the woman's warm presence, began to whimper again. In an instant, almost without thought, she had drawn the baby into her arms and pressed him to her bosom. The baby gurgled and stared with mindless intensity into her eyes.
"Ah, well." She sighed. "It seems we are stuck together, little lump. I have no idea how we shall get on or what will become of you. I have never heard of a woman of my sisterhood rearing a child before, but lately the world is full of new and disturbing thingsand perhaps this is one of them, dropped into my very lap. Perhaps we shall both learn something from it."
She placed the child carefully back in his basket, and carried it back the way she had come. The few people she passed all nodded cautiously at her and made room on the path, but none attempted to start a conversation, as they might have with almost anyone else. The people of that neighborhood were woodcutters, trappers, charcoal burners, and a few farmers who worked the small clearings. They thought her strange; she had the disconcerting habit of appearing without warning around the turn of a path; or you might be working and suddenly be aware of her presence in a corner of your sight, like smoke from a distant fire. You could not hear her coming, not even in autumn, when the very rabbits made a crunching as they traveled their underbrush roads. Although she greeted people politely on these occasions, she was short of speech and soon glided onward, out of sight. Her voice was deep and clear and not accented with the local twang. She kept no company, nor did she trade, as far as anyone could see.
From The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber, Copyright © 2005 by Michael Gruber. All Rights Reserved. HarperCollins Publishers.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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