On the last day of autumn, I wake to the cries of the cranes above and know it’s time to see the beast. I dress in thick wool and the heavy boots from the back of my closet, careful not to wake Hugo, who’s still snoring on his side of the bed. My trusty woven basket is quickly packed with small sour apples from the garden, dark brown bread and some of the smoked ham I promised Hugo for breakfast. He’ll understand once he wakes and finds me gone. He’ll hear the cranes and know not to expect me back for supper.
He might not be as understanding about me taking the last piece of the blackberry cake, however.
“You’re late,” the fox says when I step out the door. “I heard the cranes hours ago.” He sits at the foot of the stairs, primly. He’s put on his best cape for the occasion—a deep emerald green with embroidered leaves around the hem—and a matching cap adorned with a shiny new feather he must have talked out of a bluebird. From the way he cocks his head, I can tell he wants me to mention it. When I don’t, he gives me a scoff and an offended brush of his tail as I walk down the stairs.
“A good morning to you too, Reineke,” I say, walking past him and into the field behind our house. “Could you not have woken me?”
He follows, his tail high and alert. “I wouldn’t want to come across that husband of yours. He chased me out with a broom last time.”
“Last time you stole one of his chickens. A reasonable reaction, wouldn’t you say?”
We walk through the grass in silence. Above us, the cranes continue to fly towards the southern horizon in the familiar V-formation—hastily sketched lines of charcoal on pale blue paper. Below, the morning dew glitters like threaded pearls on the spiderwebs amongst the tall grass.
The creek that guards the woods runs right past the fields behind the house. We hear its murmur as we approach. Beyond that, there’s only the silence of the forest. The creek doesn’t allow for bridges to cross it but parts its waters for me, still apologetic for the time it tried to drown my youngest all those years ago. I carry the fox in my arms and the creek gurgles its displeasure.
“Why are you helping that trickster?” it wails as I wade through the exposed mud. “Don’t you know he’s in league with those nasty beavers?”
“I never knew rushing water to hold such a grudge,” the fox teases from the safety of my arms and gets splashed with mud for his troubles.
On any other day, I might have stayed for a while to watch their squabble or attempt mediation, but it’s the last day of autumn and winter waits for no one.
“I’ll speak to the beavers once I return,” I promise and climb the bank of the creek on the other side. Once, I would have crossed the creek in one effortless jump, but my knees aren’t what they used to be, and I’d rather not injure myself before starting the journey in earnest.
“At least someone around here still cares for the order of things.” The creek’s voice is a gentle purl, placated for the moment. Just as I step into the shade of the fire trees, it calls out once more. “The spring of the spirit folk must have run dry. I haven’t tasted its waters in months. Perhaps that’s where you’ll find the beast this year.”
I pause and feel the fox stiffen in my arms. “Thank you, old friend. I’ll take a look.”
I set the fox down on the blanket of fir needles that stretches out in front of us, and he shakes himself. The path through the brush is only tread by deer and, once a year, by us. Early morning light filters through the canopy of needles above, showing us the way. The shadows between the tall fir trees to either side are dark and silent. Too silent.
I have heard rumors, whispers on the wind. Something has stilled in these woods, its hum of life quieted. I felt it—of course I did—but never like this. The threads that tie my heart to the forest feel frayed.
The fox sticks close to my side, the feather on his cap bobbing with every step. For a being as old as he is, he fears the beast more than most, and I can hear his little breath of relief when we reach the fork in the path by the old erratic without any sign of it. He jumps onto the patch of moss that sits on top of the boulder. In the distance, the song of a single lark cuts through the silence.
“How can you stay so calm?” the fox asks, righting his lopsided cap. “With all that wretched silence?”
“Can’t you hear the lark? It’s quite loud, really.”
“Don’t play coy, witch. You know what I mean.” He narrows his eyes. “Just as you know what’s responsible. How many years has it been now?”
I know what he’s leading up to. It’s a familiar argument. “Seventeen.”
“Seventeen!” he bellows as if he didn’t know the answer before he asked. “Your patience knows no bounds, old woman. Don’t you know when it’s time to cut your losses?”
I wish I had taken Hugo’s broom with me. “You don’t know me at all if you think this is a loss I’m willing to accept.”
Perhaps he hears the sharpness in my tone or perhaps he’s only now realized what he’s asked of me. He jumps off the boulder and trots a little further along the deer trail to our right. “Come on then,” he calls out. “Since you’re so eager to seek out disappointment.”
For all his fear and blabbering, nobody can find the beast’s trail as easily as the fox. He’s been around for more beasts and witches of the wood than one can count. Chances are, he’ll be around for many more, long after I am gone. But the direction in which he guides me first this morning is one I could have guessed just as well myself.
By the time we reach the clearing that used to be my home, the sun has risen high in the sky and the cranes have long left these woods behind. The only thing that’s left is ruins now. Vines and grass and other plants have reclaimed the space, reaching up as far as the charred wooden beam that used to carry the roof. The stone steps leading up to a door that is no longer there are covered in leaves and dirt. I brush them aside before sitting down. My thighs are burning from the morning of walking, and I know I’ll pay the price of stiff, aching knees by tomorrow.
My heart is full with the recognition of this place, a heavy weight I feel with every breath. I used to play as a child on these very steps. Later, I nursed my own babes sitting here, enjoying the sunlight and chatting with the songbirds. From this spot, I could watch Hugo cut wood by the shed or my granddaughter play in the yard. The memories are pale now, washed out by time and the bright midday sun.
The beast isn’t here, but the traces of it are everywhere. Claw marks on the old brick wall, tufts of dark fur caught in the brambles that grow in the doorway. The fox bares his sharp teeth at the scent it left behind—something earthy and sweetly rotting.
I figured the old house would call to it as much as it calls to me.
I pull out an apple and some of the bread for lunch and keep my back to the house, to where the beast trudged through the ashes of our former life.
“How can you eat at a time like this?” the fox asks. “With that stench around?” But when I offer him some of the ham, he’s only too happy to get over his reservations. He must have smelled it as soon as I stepped out of the house. I’m almost impressed at his restraint.
We eat and behind us, the house that used to be mine lays silent. There is no lark here, no wind rustling the leaves above.
“There used to be at least ghosts here.” The hair on the back of the fox is raised. The last of his ham lies on the ground in front of him, untouched. “Something. Anything.”
“There were never ghosts,” I say. “I took those with me when I left.”
“You know what I mean. Traces of your work, other than stone and rotting wood. Magic.”
“There still is.” I sound more offended than I realized I am. “There will always be magic in my family’s home.”
"Home?” The fox looks almost offended at my audacity. “And yet, I don’t see your husband’s delicious hens pecking around this yard.”
“I didn’t choose to leave.”
“No, the humans made that choice for you when they burned down this house. And still, you deliver their children and bring them tinctures for their ailments and spells for their worries.” There’s an edge to his voice that I don’t care for. “The witch leaving the woods to cure toothaches and broken hearts. What a strange twist of fate.”
An old annoyance is creeping up my spine. Sometimes I forget why I allow this good-for-nothing trickster to accompany me on this task at all. But deep down, I know his words only sting because they sound so much like the ones that come to me when I’m wrapped up in fear and self-doubt in the middle of the night.
You’re losing your touch, old woman. What good is a witch of the woods without the woods? And that last tether, that howling beast at its heart, is slipping away with every passing year.
“I did what I had to.” No human will ever burn down my house or hurt my family again. Just like none of mine will take their life in retribution. With a little bit more force than necessary, I stuff the rest of my bread and ham back into the basket. “Finish your food, Reineke. We have a long way to go before nightfall.”
The sun is almost touching the treetops in the West when we make our way up the steep incline towards the fortress ruins and the well it once guarded. Red and golden-brown leaves cover the ground, softly crunching underneath our feet. The birch trees around us are almost bare, stretching their empty fingers towards the deep blue sky. The evening air promises a chill, but the walk has driven warmth into my cheeks. I wish I brought a walking stick from home or looked for one on my way here.
The fox is still light on his feet, its nose high in the air as it follows the scent of the beast. We avoid the spots where splintered sheets of black slate jut out of the hillside like open wounds. Back when the spirit folk held court up in their fortress, the slate used to be their first line of defense. There’s no way to tell if the stone has since lost its thirst for blood.
We pass through what used to be the main gate. Once, a stone arch covered in vines spanned across the path. Now, nothing remains but crumbled stone. The fortress didn’t burn like my home, but time and neglect did the work just as well. All that’s left of the once great fortress are the remnants of walls—vague outlines of rooms and hallways, of courtyards and towers. The forest has reclaimed it all. Moss and grass grow between the stones and young birch trees have dared to sprout and grow where the spirit folk once walked.
It’s no surprise the beast would come here. The spirit folk might be gone but their magic lingers, calling to all creatures born of the forest. The very ground is saturated with it, down to the water below it. I never saw this place when the fortress still stood and the spirit folk ruled over the land, but I’ve always felt its magic tugging at me like an invisible string, pulling me back here sooner or later. I know the beast feels it, too.
The absence of it is deafening. I try to steady my breathing—to not let the dread consume me. But the cold sweat on my forehead is not only due to the arduous climb. The creek said it hadn’t felt the water’s magic in months. But surely I would have noticed if something was amiss for such a long time. Surely it can’t have gotten this bad so soon.
The whole purpose of the fortress was to guard the well, and even its ruins still cradle it in the embrace of their crumbling walls and overgrown pathways. As I make my way towards it, my left knee protests with every step. It has settled into a throbbing pain that I know will only worsen on the descent. But the day is far from over. The beast isn’t here. Another absence gnawing at my heart.
I hobble over to the well and carefully sit down on the surrounding bricks. The stone underneath my fingers is smooth and familiar. When I was young, my grandmother used to take me here to pull up water for her spells. I still keep a vial of it hanging on the wall above our bed. The thought that the well has dried up, that the sacred water is just gone, seems impossible to me.
The fox watches me, and I think I detect a hint of worry in his gaze. He follows me and sits down on the edge of the well too, curling his tail around himself. “This day has taken a lot of your strength,” he observes. “More than usual.”
I click my tongue. “Your sharp eye misses nothing, Reineke. I am indeed not the young girl that I used to be.” It’s good to remind myself that this is the same fox who accompanied my grandmother through these woods and her grandmother before her. Age means nothing to the trickster.
He ducks his head, the long feather on his cap swaying gently. “I didn’t mean to offend. Not more than usual, in any case. But even the life of a witch of the woods is finite. How many last days of autumn do you have in you?”
Once more, he steals the cruelest words that live inside my head and tastes them on his own tongue.
“Enough.” The sharpness of my tone startles him, but he smooths over his surprise with a sly imitation of a smile, baring his sharp teeth. “There is still time,” I say. “We still have time.”
“No leaf falls from a tree in these woods without me knowing it,” he says, slowly uncurling his tail. “And I know you’re similarly meticulous in your work.” He moves his paw then, slowly, and slides a pebble over the edge of the well. We listen to it fall, both looking into the darkness below. I hold my breath but the low sound of the stone landing on dry dirt is deafening to my ears.
“Of course.” He sounds almost apologetic. “I always know. What I can’t figure out, however, is why you would try to hide this from me. Why do I have to hear about humans cutting down trees in the West from the beavers? Why do the bark beetles have to tell me about the two poachers that were nearly mauled to death last month?”
“Since when am I obligated to share everything with you?” It’s a silly argument, and we both know it. The fox is in the business of knowing. And the forest means as much to him as it does to me.
He bares his teeth, all semblance of a smile gone now. “You’re not. But you’re the one who made the deal. Your service to the humans in exchange for the forest to be undisturbed. I wonder what worries you more—humans entering the woods without your permission or the beast finally succumbing to–”
“I said enough.”
Silence falls between us. Real silence. The kind that makes the absence of magic seem all the more stark. I’m glad all of a sudden that the beast has already come and gone from this place. I couldn’t face it now, with dread still heavy in my chest.
I wonder if I’d see blood dripping from its claws or bits of human skin between its teeth. Would I look upon it and find it changed by what it did? By what my failings had allowed it to do?
“I am still the witch of the woods,” I say, drawing my strength to me with every word, “and I will walk that path until the forest calls me home one last time. Until then, I will do as I must.”
There’s another few seconds of tension, of bared teeth and a whipping tail. Then, the fox lets out a deep sigh. “You play with fire, old woman. Or something even worse. Seventeen years is a long time. Too long.”
My legs feel weak. I don’t think I can stand just yet, so I keep sitting on the edge of the well. In the West, the final rays of sunlight shine through the trees. The last day of autumn ends with a stubborn blackbird picking up its song, its trill carrying through the evening air as if everything is right in the world.
“What am I supposed to do?” I ask. “I can’t just let her go. I can’t let the beast swallow her whole. I told you this isn’t a loss I’m willing to accept.”
The fox looks at me for what feels like a long time, and I wonder what he sees. The last in a long line of witches, keeping the magic of the forest alive and safe with whatever means necessary. Or a silly old woman, patching a broken dam when the flood’s already come and gone.
“Well,” the fox says, “you haven’t failed us yet. I shall be patient for a little while longer.”
“Reineke,” I say but the rest of the sentence dies in my throat. I feel bad, just a little bit. He might be a trickster and a nuisance, but he’s as much a part of these woods as I am. As much a part of myself as any of it.
He turns his head, sniffing some scent carried on the wind. “The beast went South, down to the First Tree. I guess we should have known.” He hops off the well and stretches lazily. “Go on then. You know what to do. Morning will be here soon. And don’t even try to convince me to come with you. You know I hate sentimental reunions.”
As predicted, the pain in my knee is almost unbearable on the way down the hillside. I take breaks, holding onto the smooth bark of the birch trees during those short rests. Without sunlight, the forest has transformed into a world of shadows, but I know I can find the way even in the dark. There’s nothing here now for me to fear.
At the center of the forest, the First Tree still stands tall in the middle of a clearing of wildflowers as it has for thousands of years. Its roots, I know, reach out for miles in the earth underneath my feet. It’s the place where I was born and the place where I will come to die one day. I step out into the clearing. Without the canopy above, I can see the night sky—a glittering band of stars, a waning moon.
The beast waits for me underneath the tree, its eyes blazing in the dark. Its hulking shape shifts as it sees me, gets up and makes its way across the clearing. Its fur twists like flames of shadows, its teeth a deadly invitation. And in the moonlight of the first night of winter, the beast falls away with every step through the tall swaying grass. When she finally stands before me, the daughter of my youngest son is as I once knew her—a girl with wild dark hair and a crooked smile.
I come to her as my own grandmother once came to me, with palms upturned and a single question: “Are you ready to come home?”
I know the rules.
Thrice a witch gives her life to the woods. First, as the beast—the beating, thrashing heart of the forest, her magic raw and untamed. Then, as a woman of the woods, guarding it with spells and guidance. And lastly, in death—her body and magic given back to the earth from which she came.
Instead of giving me an answer, she hugs me. She’s naked without her fur, but her skin is hot to the touch, feverish with magic. There’s something wild in her eyes, something I recognize.
“What have you brought me to eat?” she asks, and I know I haven’t lost her yet.
We sit underneath the First Tree, and I watch as she tears into the bread and ham I brought for her. She sighs with satisfaction when I pull the apples from my basket. The beast is always hungry but hardly ever for the things my granddaughter favors.
I want to ask about the poachers, about the men she ripped apart with tooth and claw. Instead, I repeat my earlier question. “Are you ready to come home?”
She eyes me warily, and I can see the beast in the way she holds her head. “Home burned down long ago. I saw the ruins in the woods. I don’t know the place where you live now.”
“You’d like it,” I say. “It’s just beyond the creek. And close enough to visit the village as well.”
She scoffs. “You visit the people who burned down our home?”
“What better way to dissuade their fears than walk among them?” I try to smile but I can feel her slipping. “The world out there is changing. I’d love for you to see it someday.”
She pulls her knees up to her chest and for a moment, she looks as young as she really is. She’s never been good at hiding her emotions, and her time in the woods have done nothing for her skills of deception. “If I come with you, I’ll be the witch of the woods,” she says and doesn’t look me in the eye.
“And I’m sure you’ll be very good at it.”
“But you will die.”
Ah, there it is. “Eventually,” I say. There’s no point in lying. “That is the natural way of things. But not for a while, I think.”
She nods but doesn’t look convinced. “The well of the spirit folk has dried up. And the First Tree is losing its leaves.” She picks one up from the ground underneath her and shows it to me, its edges wilted and curled. “And sometimes I wake up and don’t remember that I wasn’t born with claws and fangs.” She pauses and when she speaks again, her voice is quiet, ashamed. “The fox says the forest is dying because we’ve interrupted the cycle for too long. Because you haven’t given back your magic to the earth and because I keep holding on to the beast.”
I sigh and reach out to touch her hand. Magic pulses underneath her skin, young and violent. “We’re witches. Nobody tells us what to do. And certainly no fox, for that matter.”
She smiles her crooked smile and my heart aches with how much I’ve missed seeing it. “Did you hear that he helped the beavers build a dam in the middle of the creek?”
“And I’m sure he’ll get drowned for it at least once before the year is through.”
She lets the leaf fall back to the ground and wipes the dirt from her fingers on the bare skin of her knee. “Who will protect the forest when the beast is gone? There are always humans, crossing boundaries. What can I do when I’m like this?” She holds up her hand, bird-bone wrists and dirt under her fingernails.
“There are other ways.” I take her hand in mine. “And you don’t have to do it alone.”
She takes a shaky breath. Around where she sits, flowers spring up, bloom and wilt. The forest’s magic is pouring out of her—seasons of it held back and ready to spill over. She is letting go, slow und unsure, like taking her first steps.
“I will miss it, I think.” Yellow buttercups are born underneath her feet, die and rise again. “Do you still miss it sometimes?”
It’s been many, many years since I’ve run through these woods, claws digging into the soft earth and my breath wild and full of magic.
“All the time,” I say. “But I’ve missed you more.”
She nods and turns her head up to the night sky. “Can we stay for little while longer?”
We only have a few short hours until dawn. Until the start of winter demands her choice. I reach into the basket and pull out the piece of blackberry cake I have saved for her. “Take all the time you need.”
© 2023 T. R. Siebert