The Grass Witch
The grass witch has scabs for eyes and a lizard for a tongue. Her hair is thick with chiggers, she has arms of sticks, and her thumbs are red from grinding bone bread. She eats babies, Julep says, and I mean to find out, for the grass witch has stolen my son.
I was sleeping when she took himwhen her fingers, long as moss, pulled him from the river's edge and swam him down to her mud-thatched hut in the fens. When I woke, my babe was only an echo of ripples from where the grass witch had been.
Some people saw her, but did they stop her? No. Did they even try? Not a chance. Nor would I, if it were someone else's child. But Ashlar was formed in the folds of my belly, and my womb trembles when I think of my sweet child held in the pointed thorns of the grass witch's palm. My Ashlar.
People looked at me like I'd gone all daft when I said I was going to get him back. Even Julep, my sister, pulled my arm as if to stop me. "Fens will kill you, Jilly," she said, her eyes wide. "Sure enough before the old crone will."
Well, that's easy for her to say, with her belly so big she might give birth to twin cows any day. But Ashlar is my only child, and I've no man to give me another. Don't want one either.
So I've got my longbow, newly strung, and a quiver of silver-tipped arrows slung at my side. That's how I shootstraight from the hip. No reaching behind my back with my elbow over my head, chest open and exposed, not for me. I hunch when I draw, bend at the knee and pull. Strange, you might say, but we've never gone hungry, Ashlar and me. And I've been hunting this way for thirteen years. From my tenth spin on.
Walking the fens is a dance on quicksand. One wrong step and I'll feed the frogs, I know; and their low, hope-filled croaking isn't helping. I keep to dead trees, walk on logs, jump on twisted branches, and pray that Ashlar hasn't been crushed yet to make her bread.
I slip once, shoat-skin boots sinking thigh deep; but I've got long legs, and one arrow tied to a rope. It's not easy shooting from the hip in the middle of a bog, but one bite from a lance-toothed frog gives me the incentive I need. The arrow sticks to the wide trunk of a banyan, and I pull myself to a log that's covered in the black slime of north star moss. Slippery, but better than drowning in wet acid.
My heart's pounding hard, like it's moved to my throat. I look at my boots and watch them smoke. The fen waters are oily with poison, burning everything they touch; which is why the trees are charred here, only the strongest roots surviving. And the banyan trees, and only these because their roots grow backwards, skyward down.
Our Auntie used to say the grass witch's blood runs thick with swamp water. That her mud-thatched hut's just for show; she really lives in stygian depths of foul water, sleeps with the frogs and adders, rises with the stinking sun. But I've got my own ideas about the grass witch.
I wait till my boots stop hissing, glad again I chose pig skin instead of the thinner, prettier doe to cover my shins, and begin my trudge toward the grass witch's home, pretending like I'm not afraid.
Was a time she only took girls. Pretty ones with curly hair. Soft the way only a baby's hair is. She was more careful then, hunting at night with her long fingers. I only saw her once: when I was six, and she tried to come for Julep.
She came through our window, fingers first, moving like creeping moss toward Julep's crib. Quiet as a sigh. I only stirred because Julep cried out in her sleep, and our Da put me in charge of Julep when our Ma died. She was a good baby, even then, and never cried. So I knew something was wrong when her soft voice pierced the night.
I jolted from my cot when I saw her. Scabs for eyes, lizard for a tongue, its tail flickering as if to smell the air. Moss for fingers, brambles for bones, she tangled about Julep's crib with her loose limbs, making a basket with her arms.
She had no skin, I remember. Just a body of branches and leaves, sticks and mud. And grass, of course, long threads of marsh grass threading across her body like veins. Her face peered over Julep's crib with an expression that looked almost tenderthe twigs rising over her eyes; her brown lips parting wide.
I was only six, but I kept a dirk under my cot even then. My Da gave me that knife, and the bright steel of it shone like only a first blade can.
I palmed it, quiet, as the grass witch enfolded my sister. She was blind but swift, and she held my Julep in the bundle of her arms. I waited until her grasp was firm and I flicked my wrist, let fly my dirk.
It hit the grass witch's left eye, or the scab where the eye should have been; and she let out a high-pitched wail of pain that sounded like the wind ripping the branches of a tall tree; the lizard in her mouth quivering violently.
She dropped Julep back to her crib, surprised, and turned toward me, sightless and pained, and tried to grab me with her mossy fingers.
My dirk was still in her eye, and I had no other. So I did what a child of six has no shame in doing. "Da!" I screamed. "Da, come quick! It's the witch, Da! The witch the witch the witch!"
I heard him stumbling down the hall. He opened the door as the grass witch made a grab for me. He held the longbow in his arm, the same one that I hold now, and he drew it back. Not a good weapon for close range, but in the short walk down the hall he'd managed to light his arrow with poison flame, and he let it fly, his face twisted with rage.
It hit the grass witch square. And she fled our small house the same way she came, out the window, fingers first, running for the dark waters of the swamp.
We never slept with the windows open again, but others weren't so cautious.
Since that year, the grass witch has taken a child each season. And this was only my Ashlar's third spring. Today, the day I gave him birth.
The picnic at the river was Julep's idea to celebrate her nephew's birthday. Oh, she'd made enough sweets to feed us sick, and I was tired from chasing my bairn from tree to tree, prying rocks from his fingers so he wouldn't swallow them. And him tired too, from being chased. So we fell asleep together on the river's edge, his little body making a nest of my skirts.
Ashlar would often laugh in his sleep, and it was the absence of his laughter that woke me. That, and the sudden, too-still silence. Julep at my side when I jolted from sleep. Her green eyes bright from weeping. Her fine blue skirts knotted in her fists. "She came and went, Jilly!" she cried. "Too late!"
She never said who, but I knew all the same. The men went searching the other side of the river with half-hearted pokes of their swords. Julep's husband, our Da, our little brother Lupa with angry kicks of his dirty brown feet. But no one would go after her. Into the fen.
Last time someone went to chase her down, his bones washed up on our riverbank. We only knew it was him by the missing front tooth in his skull. His little girl got took last season, robbed from her cradle while he slept in the rocker at her side.
The witch came at night that time, in the purple shadowed winter. He said he heard a noise, but it only sounded like bending branches, and he paid it no mind. I don't remember what else he said, because he wept so hard as he spoke. I was touched by his tears. Never seen a man so big cry so hard.
But now I know why he wept. I can feel it in my own bones. The fear, the loss, the sickening emptiness. My cornerstone, my girding, my sly brown bobbin. Gone! He was the reason I lived when my own man died.
Gored by the horns of an eight-point stag. They'd been drinking, he and my Da, and my foolish Laird thought he'd kill the beast "hand-to-hand." "It was a good death," my Da insists, even now, but he doesn't believe it any more than I do, for he quit drinking that day, and I do all the hunting now.
I wonder who'll do the hunting if the witch takes me.
Once I cross the river delta, I've gone further than anyone from our village. The men walk heavily upon our land; the women too light. Few have the balance necessary to walk the fen. Except the dead man, big though he was. Something tells me that he went all the way.
The soil's rich here, wet and black, and now's where the walking gets tricky. There're some stones to help me, but the earth's too soft to trust even the biggest rocks. I find myself shooting that rope more times than I'd like, switching arrows so the shafts won't bend too much from my weight, hugging the giant trees so I won't sink.
I walk on for an hour or so, only covering a mile, at the most, as I shoot the rope, pull for balance, mince steps, leap to the trees, and listen.
I don't know where she lives. Not exactly, but already I'm hearing the sounds of bending branches, whispering leaves. And there aren't any proper trees in the fen. Just banyans, quiet as round stone walls.
And then I hear a familiar cry raise above the fen. My Ashlar! I tense, ready to run. That sweet voice is only one hundred yards away, due west. I check my arrows quickly, dip their sharp tips for second helpings in my poison sack. And then I run toward my child, tipping rocks as I scurry.
I miss a quicksand pit by inches and try to ignore the rock that disappears into the churn. There's no time for arrows or ropes now. I push aside all fear, ignore my sweating limbs, my pounding heart, and trust in my balance, and my trust is not in vain. I've reached the grass witch's hut, and I hide behind a banyan to look for a way in.
Her walls are thick with mud and marsh grass, her roof smothered in rushes. There's a small window on the side, and a hole in the front, dark as death. I listen and hear the cries of my son. Not in the cottage, but close by. And something else that speaks in low moans, creaking as it moves.
I hunker down, crawling on my belly, and move to the closest wall.
The window is crudejust a hole, no glass, but I did I expect stained sheets of claude-lorraine to adorn the Grass Witch's hut? No.
Our Ma, her name was Leesel Moon, used to spin yarns about the grass witch's beauty. Said she was no crone at all, but a shining lady with flowing hair like waves on a river. That's just how she'd say it, too, brushing her own long hair with a small tin comb as if she wished she were the grass witch herself, her gray eyes distant and too old for her smooth skin.
"And what about the babies, Madam?" our Da would ask. "If she's so fancy and fine, why'd she take young Emmie last spring?"
And our Ma would smile from her silver facethat serene, quiet smile that charmed and enraged our Da in equal portionsand shrug. "It's lonely in the fen, my Laird. Companionship is all for she takes the bairns." Never stopped brushing that hair, our Ma.
But she never saw the grass witch true, as I did, that night when I was six, so when I look through the rough window of her hut, I don't shudder in surprise at the squalor. I know the grass witch is no beauty. And I am beginning to sense that the grass witch is no witch at all, only sticks and mud that somehow rose from the swamp to walk one day.
The grass witch keeps a poor house. Dirt floors, uneven and wet, a rough stone table, and a cot. Heaps of white rocks lie in cairns about her floor, and she has no door. Her sagging roof is filthy. I see creepers in the rushes; and peeking my head into the window deeper, I notice a large net hanging above the doorway. For rats, I wager. Or babes that try to crawl away.
Her hut's empty now, but I know she's near with my Ashlar, so I creep to the front and duck in the hole, quiet as a beastie, and hide myself under her stone table, holding my bow and arrows close.
I don't know what my plan is, not exactly. I aim to kill her, if I might, and save my son. But if arrows won't kill her, what will? My breathing's heavy now. Any minute the crone could find me squatting under where she grinds her bread. My eyes dart around the room, looking for a better spot, but there's none. And I notice, peering closer, that the little heaps of white aren't rocks at all, but bones, picked clean and blanched white. Tiny bones, no bigger than mice. Our babies' bones. Neatly stacked and quiet. Little fingers, little toes.
I can't control my stomach. All the sweets that Julep made for Ashlar's birthday pour right out on the grass witch's floor. I want to weep, but that won't help the wee bairns now. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I pull my limbs tight to my body, try not to shudder, and wait in the dark for the grass witch to bring my boy.
It's not long before she comes skulking through the hole, a bundle in her arms. Ashlar, I think, and hold myself close. I'll rush her when she sets him down, and she'll never know what struck her. But I can't control myself when I see her face, and I let out a cry that is low and filled with pain.
The grass witch has eyes now. Mismatched and blue. One wide and round, one the shape of a young almond flower. And skin! Patches of fresh skin have been sewn over more than half her body. Varying shades of peach, yellow, tan, and brown cover her arms, small branches poking out where the stitching's uneven. Her head swings toward my cry.
But eyes though she has, they do not work for her, for the witch pulls her bundle close and tilts her head, listening and sniffing the air for my body. Blind.
Sweat's pouring from my skin in sheets, I can smell it; that and the sour mess I've made on her floor. And if I can smell it, won't be long before she will, too. Slowly, I reach for the pile of bones closest to me and throw one across the room, near the door.
Her head spins where it clatters, and she holds her bundle closer. I've got to be careful for that bundle's sake. I am still as stone under that table.
She stands still, too, her mouth moving slow, chewing air. She sucks it in, and when she exhales, she moans. "Come out!" Her vowels blowing like wind. The word "ouuuuuuut" echoing in her dark hut. A wail of frustration.
I didn't know she could speak; but I keep mum just the same. Her voice is a bellow of pain. I'll do nothing to hurt that bundle she holds so close to her body. Quiet though it may be, too quiet for my boy. I hold my fears in check. Waiting.
She holds a moment longer, and then, understanding something I don't want her to understand, she turns away from me, pulls up the bundle over her head, and dashes it to the ground.
"My Ashlar!" I scream, my hiding place revealed, and I rush towards the door to save my son.
Something like a smile spreads across the witch's face as I run, and with a swift move she loosens the cord that holds her net, trapping me in tangles. To my side, the bundle I thought was my son is only kindling, smashed and wrapped in strips of swaddling.
I twist my body, trying to free from the net; but it's thick and twisted marsh grass, impossible to escape. The filtering sunlight just beyond my fingertips.
She stoops to the ground and picks up a smooth round stone, edges toward me.
"Where is he?" I shout, pulling away from the darkness, struggling against the net. It's hard to see her clearly, but I know the strike's coming. "My child!"
Her arm raises back, slow and rickety, and she strikes me once, twice, three times, and I meet blackness.
I wake to darkness, and I'm tied. My wrists behind my back, my ankles forced together by a clumsy knot of marsh grass. She's placed my bow and arrows in the corner of her hut, as if she's trying to decide what to do about them.
Not much light in the cottage, only a squat candle she must've filched from town, her arms making large shadows as she moves. On her square stone table my Ashlar rests, still but alive, breathing and lovely as anything I've ever seen.
I'd cry out to him, but my mouth's filled with mud and watercress, sealed shut. I'm on her cot, laying on the soiled fabric of her bed; and a large rat eyes me with its beady eyes. I make a feeble kick at it and it scurries away, its whip-cord tail disappearing into the wall.
I'm chewing on mud, swallowing in gulps. It's poisoned, I'm sure, but my life is nothing without Ashlar. If I can swallow all this mud, she'll not know, whereas my spitting's sure to warn her. And if I can just get enough room in my mouth to speak, I can tell Ashlar what to do, where to kick so he can at least have a chance to run.
She bends over him, that strange look of tenderness on her borrowed face. Eyebrows raising, brown lips parting. She chews the air again, gulping it in and breathing out moans. "My pretty one," each word a grinding of her jaw.
She reaches with one twig finger to caress my child. She hasn't enough skin to cover all of her, but if she takes Ashlar, she might be close.
He stares up at her, his brown eyes large as ladles, drinking in the sight of the grass witch. He's a trusting boy, my Ashlar, and he reaches hesitantly to touch her, wraps his hand around her kindling fingers.
Tears well up in his eyes when his skin does not meet with skin. "Ma!" he wails. "I want my Ma!"
And he doesn't even know I'm here. I chew and swallow as fast as I can, still not enough. I'm almost choking.
The witch reaches for the knife that rests on her table next to Ashlar. The rusty blade blends in with the shadows, almost becoming a part of her hand.
Ashlar cries harder, but thank God he's not tied. He squirms on the table, and she holds him down with her bramble arms, the patchwork skin draping off a bit so some branches poke out.
I almost have this mud under control. The wet ball in my mouth is slowly melting to a handful of pebbles. I taste a wet string slide across my tongue. Worm. It slithers down my throat, alive. Tears form in my eyes as I hold down the gag. I've only a marble left of the mud now. I can feel the poison working through me, but I have enough strength to yell. Almost there. The rat's back now, and I kick harder this time, so it makes an eeking sound and burrows into the wall.
The grass witch tilts her head to the cot. I make myself still, stop my chewing and swallowing. But I think I've got enough room in my mouth to yell.
She turns her attention to Ashlar, draws her rusty blade over her head.
"Her face, Ashlar! Pull the skin and kick!" I scream.
And my son only hesitates a moment, twisting to his side so her blade hits stone, jarring her wooden bones. He reaches with his small fists, grabs the loose skin, and kicks the scabs that are her eyes.
She reels back, screaming, her knife still in hand. There's something familiar about that blade, but I'm too busy to think about what. "Untie me, boy! Quickly!"
He runs to the corner of the room, tries to bury himself in my lap.
"No time!" I bend and show him my tied wrists.
The grass witch is lunging toward us now, swinging the dirk in the air in random sweeps. Her wooden jaw chewing air, grinding out wails of pain.
Ashlar works with his tiny fingers, clumsily tearing away the knot of marsh grass. His curls are plastered against his head in sweat, his body trembling. Only a few threads left. I look to the corner of the hut. "Grab my bow and quiver. Go!"
She's close now, and Ashlar just misses a sweep of her knife as he runs to my gear.
I fall on the floor and roll. Cut the last of the knot with the rough rocks in the mud. I grab my bow from Ashlar's shaking arms and pull him to my hip. I bend and cut the cords that hold my feet with the tip of my arrow. Free at last, we run out the hole.
She follows us, blind and howling. "My child!"
It's a heavy darkness that fills the fens, and I can't shoot without light. I can barely make out the hut we've just escaped from, let alone the grass witch who follows. I pick her cottage for my target and set Ashlar down.
When he taught me to hunt, my father said one thing: "Don't think about killing. Shoot. To linger is to starve." And those words ring in my head as I draw my arrow from the hip, strike it to flame, bend my knees, hunch slightly, pull back, and let the arrow fly.
The roof is the first to burn. Like a pile of slag in a dry wood, it explodes. The flames crawl swiftly across the rushes, burning and cracking, scorching. Black smoke pours from the roof of her hut as the fire flowers across the walls, burning the marsh grass and mud.
The grass witch wails as her hut burns behind her. She's draped her face back on, but it hangs lopsided from her branches.
I shake my head and aim to shoot her, my arrows digging urgently against my hip. But even as I want to let the shaft fly, I pause. Her face so wretched, her eyes dismayed and weeping real tears. Human. I open my mouth to speak, to distract her, but she moves swiftly, flicking her wrist, throwing my own dirk at me so it hits my thigh. Just above my right boot.
I grimace and pull my blade from my leg just as she must have pulled it from her eye that night, so many years ago when she crept upon Julep. I stare at the thin steel of it. All these years. I draw an arrow.
She howls. She wanted to kill me; and instead I'm only wounded. Her wrists are thorny with branches, tearing the patchwork skin from all the rapid movement, and she has nothing left to throw.
She makes a lunge for my Ashlar, but he grabs my left leg (smart boy!), picks up a rock, and pelts it at the grass witch.
I strike my arrow so it flames.
She screams, tearing at her hair with her fingers, broken twigs and hanging skin. Real hair, too. Soft and curly, as only a child's hair can be. I ignore the sickness in my gut and release the arrow.
She's slow to burn, and I hold Ashlar's head down so he cannot see her melting flesh. The skin she's reaped flows like wax, her hair scorches and straightens, cornsilk yellow. No end to her screams. Finally the grass witch burns, her branches and brambles, her marsh grass veins and kindling legs catching fire. They spark, popping as they burn. But her lopsided eyes are watery till the end, human and blue, until nothing is left except brief scabs that also turn to ash.
I scatter her ashes along the fen as Ashlar and I walk, careful and slow, back to our village. Poison coursing my blood, I vomit every half mile.
"What was she?" Ashlar asks, his small hand tight around my wrist, his brown eyes black from fear.
I lean against a banyan, hold my bairn close, and remember how it was when he was yet unborn, sleeping in my bellytwo hearts under one skin. The grass witch longed for that connection. Our Ma was right after all. I make a note to tell my Da.
"She wanted to be human."
"But what was she?" His hand squeezes tighter. He has to know.
"She was nothing but tinder and sticks, my boy. And mud and grass that rose from the swamp to walk one day. There're no more like her, I wager. And she was all alone."
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM