Published in ‘Monstrous Appetites’ (Bowen Street Press, 2022)

The witch who dwelled in Bone Forest did so alone.
            She walked up the pathway every morning alone, her feet pressing crushed bones deeper into the earth. She looked in her mailbox—a deer skull with hollow eye sockets to slip rolled papers into—and walked back to her cottage alone. She never got any mail but she never could escape the obligations of ‘what if’.
            Like, what if the old man, who picked berries at the outskirts of her forest, invited her to tea? What if he sat there waiting, waiting, waiting for her to come and visit him?
            And what if those young boys, who ripped the flowers from her garden, sent a letter asking her how to turn the chamomiles they took into a tea to help them sleep? She never did get to tell them. It’s hard to talk to people when they are screaming and howling and running away from you. Would the boy with long blond hair pulled together with a piece of string, come back for his tattered boot he left behind? The witch had left the shoe beside the broken pot outside her front door just in case.
            She wished she had the chance to talk to the people who entered her forest. She wished people stayed long enough for her to tell them she couldn’t leave the forest. She wished she had the chance to tell people about the curse that bound her to Bone Forest.
            She couldn’t leave her forest until all her work was done. And when would that be?
            The witch couldn’t leave until all the bones that lay in her forest were fused together to form trees—fresh white bones, ready for birds to find purchase on; or the older, yellow bones that reminded her just how long she’d been building this forest.
            Each morning she woke up and pulled on her white skirt and blouse. She left her white hair loose and knotted. She told herself she’d brush her hair when she had visitors—she’d present herself well. She’d ask the villagers to bring her something the other young women wore because, although she was over a thousand years old, she still had a youthful complexion. She was cursed to look young and be young so that she could continue her work with ease.
            Every day she walked to the outskirts of the forest and took the bones discarded on the ground, unloved and unremembered. She worked to fuse the bones together, moulding them into the trees that filled the forest. The bones always crumbled and turned soft against her hands like wet clay.
            She collected red liquid from the Blood River and fed the earth so her trees could grow taller, sharper, full of life where there had once only been death. Her forest stretched for miles as the dead didn’t stop dying and the people of the village did not stop discarding bodies in the forest to rot—humans and little rodents, deer and fish. She supposed the people in the village did not have the same beliefs as her. She supposed they thought that life was more important than death. . . But death kept her forest alive.
            The witch who dwelled in Bone Forest did so alone. Because being alone was a burden she had to deal with so the villagers outside the forest didn’t have to.
            The witch was cursed to work alone, live alone and always be alone. Because of this, she had become sensitive to sounds that weren’t air whistling through the trees like an old, forgotten instrument—hollow and deep and wailing to be heard. She knew the difference between the song of a bird and the song of a human. Though, she’d never actually heard a human sing. Until now. . .
            The witch pushed her way out of her cottage and tilted her head to the sky. Blue always peaked through the tops of the white trees, so that she felt like a spider trapped in her own web.
            Where was that sound coming from? The high-pitched song bounced off the trees, making it difficult to know where the person making such a sound was coming from.
            The witch gathered the bottom of her white skirt into her hands and broke out into a run. She didn’t know where to go but she knew she had to catch the person before they left.
            She would finally get to speak to a human.
            The ground of the forest was uneven and fought to trip her up. The bones branches reached up to grab her by the ankles but she dodged them with ease. She had lived in this forest long enough to know which paths had bones that sliced her feet and which paths were smooth and made from the tops of skulls.
            The human in her forest wouldn’t know that. She hoped they were wearing shoes.
            Song continued to rip through the silence of the forest and the witch continued to seek out the voice making such beautiful sounds. She was getting closer. She had to be getting closer. Left. The sound was coming from her left. 
            She made a sharp turn, watching to make sure her feet were not disturbing the newer bones, and—
            Something smashed into her, knocking her to the floor. There was a yell. Her palm sliced against a horn sticking out of the ground.
            On the ground in front of her, a human lay sprawled out on the floor—wide-eyed and panting. A girl.
            Next to her, a basket sat on it’s side with flowers spilling out onto the floor, which the ground immediately absorbed.
            ‘No!’ the girl said as she scrambled to save her flowers. But it was too late.
            ‘Sorry,’ the witch said, reaching out to the girl before pulling away. She didn’t want to scare her. ‘Those flowers have returned to the earth. I’ve—I’ve got more in my garden if you, well, if you maybe wanted some?’
            The girl pursed her lips to the side. ‘They were for you.’
            ‘For me?’
            ‘I thought you’d like something living, since all anyone ever offers you is death.’ She plucked a flower that had been woven into her braid and handed it to the witch who just stared. ‘A gift for you.’
            The witch took the flowers and twirled the little stem between her fingers, watching as the purple petals blurred. The colour stood out against all the white in the forest. The witch smiled.
            ‘Thank you.’ She cleared her throat and took a deep breath. For over a thousand yeara, she had waited to make an offer to a human. For over a thousand years, she had practised what she would say to a human who stayed long enough to let her speak. ‘Would you like to come back to my house?’
            The girl smiled and the witch wondered how old she was. In her twenties maybe? It was hard to tell the age of someone who didn’t age in the same way you did.
            ‘Yes please.’
            The witch led the girl back to her cottage and went straight to the fire to warm up some water for tea.
            The girl sat in silence, playing with the ends of her brown hair. She was beautiful and radiated a warmth the witch forgot existed in the chill of the forest. Women never entered the bone forest.
            ‘You’re bleeding,’ the girl said, craning her neck to where the witch stood by the stove. 
            She was right. A shallow cut run along the length of the witch’s palm from when she fell.
            The witch walked to the far window of the living room, cracked open a window and let the blood drip down to the earth outside.
            Closing the window, the witch turned back to her living room and went back to making the tea, whistling the same tune the girl had been singing earlier.
            ‘May I ask how old you are?’ the girl said as the witch lay out the tea and took a seat across from her.
            ‘Old enough to lose count of the years. Over a thousand, I suppose.’
            ‘And yet I would have thought you barely looked older than myself.’
            ‘I age differently.’
            ‘I see.’
             The girl fell back into silence. Her delicate hands picked up the chipped mug and she took a long gulp of tea. Her eyes darted around the room, looking everywhere except at the witch. 
            Was the girl afraid of her?
            ‘Are you alright?’ the witch asked. She took a sip of her own tea because she seemed not to know what else to do with her hands.
            ‘Yes. It’s just. . . I’m not supposed to be here.’
            ‘Why not?’ The witch focused on balancing sugar cubes on her spoon then dropping the sweetness into her tea. Perhaps if she didn’t look at the girl, then no one would feel nervous to speak.
            ‘Have you ever spoken to a villager?’
            ‘No.’ She thought back to when she was first taken to the forest by a group of men with sticks of fire and teeth bared in anger. Witch! Witch! Witch. She wants to work, hey? Then we’ll make her work. ‘Not in a very long time. My memories have blurred.’
            The girl paused, her hand tea cup hovering just in front of her mouth. ‘Then you know nothing about the sorts of characters that live in the village.’ She put her tea down and pursed into a thin line. She look worried or scared. The witch had forgotten what a crease between someone’s eyebrows and a bobbing in their throat meant.
            ‘I don’t know much about the villagers, but I know they live quiet, peaceful lives. They pick berries and flowers and I often hear heavy thuds of tools. They must be hardworking, yes?’
            ‘They are anything but hard working.’ The girl’s voice was tight and her eyes watered, but witch didn’t think it was sadness. ‘You do all the work for them.’
            ‘No, I do work for the forest. The trees need bones and blood and death to survive and grow. You’re villagers help me.’
            ‘That’s not true.’ The girl slammed her fist on the table, making the tea cups rattle on their saucers.
            The witch flinched. ‘They do. They help me.’
            ‘They help make it so you are trapped here forever. You can’t leave because they keep bringing bones into the forest. The curse will never be lifted.’
            The witch’s eyes widened. ‘You know about the curse?’
            If this girl knew, then maybe she could help get word to the entire village.
            ‘Everyone knows about the curse.’ The girl’s gaze was strong, she didn’t let the witch look away from her. ‘They make you work because they know you’ll do it. They make you work because they don’t want you to leave the forest.’
            The witch cocked her head to the side. She didn’t know what the girl was saying, but her stomach still found its way into knots. Her heart still slammed into her chest because surely what the girl was saying couldn’t be true. Surely, she was mistaken.
            ‘I don’t understand. They don’t want me to leave? Why?’
            ‘Because they’re afraid of what you’ll do if you were free. I came here to tell you. I came here because you need to know.’
            ‘What is it they think I’ll do?’
            The girl pulled her lips into a thin line. She reached her hand out and pressed her warm palms against the back of the witch’s hands.
            ‘They think you’ll stop working.’
            ‘And the curse?’
            ‘Will continue on for ever, so long as there are sacrifices.’
            ‘Sacrifices? I thought—I thought those creatures died natural deaths.’
            ‘No,’ the girl said, and her voice was tight with anger. Her hands tensed on top of the witch’s hands. ‘Most of those deaths did not to happen. My family didn’t need to—what I’m trying to say is they sacrificed all those creatures, all those people, because they wanted you to keep working. They wanted work to be the only thing you knew.’
            And it was true. All she’d ever known is work. All she’s known is to push and push and push herself until her bones ached and she felt as though she had never known a full days rest. Wake up, work, go to sleep, wake up, work, go to sleep, work, work, work, get no sleep. The bones in the forest kept piling up because the people of the forest kept using and discarding and wasting. How many of these deaths were unnecessary? How many of these deaths were murders committed people who didn’t want to see her stop working? They didn’t want her to stop working because they didn’t want her to grow. They didn’t want her to stop working because they didn’t want her to be free.
            ‘What do I do?’ The witch asked.
            Her whole body shook with something. Grief? No, rage. Her body shook because all she wanted to do was storm over to the village and make the villagers apologise for all they had done. Her throat tightened because all she wanted to do was scream and scream and never stop screaming. Thousands of years of pain. How could any punishment amount to her suffering? Because she wanted to see them suffer.
            They were afraid of her and now they had every right to be.
            ‘Make them hurt like they made you hurt.’
            For all the bones she was forced to mould into trees that would never be satisfied. For all the times she waited for a visitor, or even a letter. For all the times people had run into her forest only to run back out with her plants—because it was a dare, how had she never realised it was all dares? When she thought she was respected as the keeper of the dead, they were actually mocking her as a woman they could make do whatever they wanted.
            Yes. She would hurt them.
            ‘The bone wall at the edge of the Blood River,’ the girl said. ‘Take it and let the water ruin their homes.’
            It wasn’t enough, but it was a start.
            ‘And what of your home?’
            ‘I don’t have a home there anymore. I belong there no more than you do.’ The girl looked so gentle and sweet with her flushed cheeks and soft hands and flowers woven into her curls. But her softness did not come with an unwillingness to be violent.
            They had hurt her too.
We will both get our revenge.

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