Deep in the heart of the woods lived a witch, so the elders of Aly’s village said. The elders spun a tale of an old crone who lured young maidens into the darkest copse where the light never shined and roses never grew. And there, the old crone would feed on their blood and suck out their youth until their skin became taut and their bones brittle. And the witch, they said, would become young again.
“Don’t listen to old fools,” her grandma would chide whilst knitting another winter shawl. “They’re jealous, is all.”
Aly would crawl on her lap and tangle herself among the wool. “Jealous of what, Nana?”
“They became old, and the witch remained young.”
“How can that be?” Aly would ask. “Everyone grows old.”
And Nana’s eyes would sparkle with the youth of a thousand lives. “Magic.”
The elders of Aly’s village scoffed at Nana’s words. There was no such thing as magic! But evil existed, and so the elder’s warned their people to stay away from the woods, and their men listened. No one ventured past the little stream dividing the village from the trees, and woodsman took their gains from the solid oak of the outer forest.
Over time, most forgot about the witch in the woods.
For the woods remained quiet, and the land gave plenty. The villagers lived their lives around the seasons and needed every hand to help. In spring, Aly helped sow the seeds which would sprout wheat and nourish them. In summer, Aly helped graze the cattle in the fields nearby so they’d grow fat and healthy. In fall, Aly helped with the harvests and danced until her legs gave out in the pumpkin festivals. And in winter, Aly sat with her Nana and helped cook and clean and sew and knit whilst staring into their hearth and dreaming of an endless summer.
In most ways, Aly lived a normal life with normal wants and normal desires. But whenever she helped sow the seeds or graze the cattle or danced under the stars, she found her gaze pull toward the woods, though she couldn’t remember why.
Then, on Aly’s fourteenth winter, her Nana fell ill.
The elders of the village fussed over Nana, but she shooed them away until only Aly remained.
“Don’t mind them. It’s not only my time, but yours as well.”
“What do you mean, Nana?” Aly asked whilst wiping her eyes dry.
“This village is old, and so am I. Far older than you could ever imagine. But I was young once, and I had a friend. A friend who would listen to my woes over a nice cup of tea. You need to find her.”
“The witch in the woods.”
Aly didn’t understand. Why a witch? But the witch in the woods knew magic.
That night, Aly crept away with the dawn. Snow twinkled from the naked tree branches and blanketed the sparse spots dotted throughout the forbidden woods. With no green to shield them, the woods looked foreboding and empty. The village elders would worry about Aly’s disappearance, but no one would dare follow her into the woods. Aly wrapped her cloak tight and crunched through hardened ice.
The woods gave way to a summer meadow. Green grass and yellow flowers stirred from a warm breeze as butterflies and honeybees danced between the stalks. And in the center of the meadow sat a tiny cottage. The windows were open, the door ajar, and a faint puff of smoke rose from the chimney in a shimmering haze.
Aly rubbed her eyes. Could this be magic? Winter continued behind her, but this space bloomed oblivious to the seasons like a reverse snow globe. A scent of cinnamon caught her nose led her to the cottage.
She rapped on the door. “Hello, good morning, is anyone here?”
Inside, daffodils, fresh baked bread, and cinnamon buns lined the windowsill. Handmade woven tapestries in warm colors of reds and oranges covered the wooden and rustic furniture. And in the center, a young lady no older than Aly sat on a couch. Her bronze skin glowed with the warmth of the sun and her golden hair shone like radiant dawn.
The young lady held a teapot and poured steaming liquid into matching ceramic cups. “Come in, come in, you’re just in time for tea. That’s one for you, and one for me,” she said with a singsong voice.
Aly stared, mesmerized, but didn’t dare step closer. “Are you the witch in the woods?”
“A witch?” The girl chuckled. “Sit. I don’t bite, but the winter cold does.”
Aly slipped onto a velvet cushion and sank into its softness. “You don’t look like a witch. Aren’t they supposed to be scary?”
“They’re only scary if scary is what you expect to see. What did you see when you came to my home?”
“A cottage in a meadow during summer, with daffodils and butterflies. Is this magic?”
“There is magic here, if humans can learn to embrace it.” The witch offered Aly a tea cup. “This is what you seek.”
Aly wrapped her fingers carefully around the warm ceramic. “A potion for my Nana?”
“No potion can stop death, my dear. I offer you a far greater power; a shoulder to cry on.”
Aly frowned. “But how will that help my Nana?”
“It won’t. It will help you. That is why you came. Would you like a cupcake?”
Aly nodded, dumbfounded, and she listened as the witch in the woods spoke of the wildflowers growing outside, and the squirrels that would come to eat crumbs, and the summer that never ceased. With coaxing, Aly spoke of her own life in the village and then of Nana; the memories made, the scarves knitted, and the tales shared. Aly shed tears, drank tea, and ate cakes until the sun began to set.
The witch in the woods waved her away. “If you ever need a friendly ear, dear Aly, you’ll always find summer waiting for you.”
Aly returned to her village, and as night passed, her Nana passed with it.
Over time, most forgot about the day Nana left.
But not Aly.
When the winter snows melted into spring grew, Aly returned to the forbidden woods. The tiny cottage remained the same as though she’d never left, but this time the scent of blueberry muffins enticed her inside.
“Come in, come in, you’re just in time for tea. Something ails you, my dear?”
Aly sat with her hands in her lap deep in thought. Her height grew gangly this past season, and the boys teased her dull brown locks. “I wish to be beautiful like you.”
The witch smiled and handed her a steaming cup. “This is what you seek.”
Aly glanced down at the swirling tea leaves. “Will it make me pretty?”
“No potion can give you beauty. I offer you a far greater power; contentment.”
Aly sipped the warm honey tea and felt the soothing liquid work its magic. She left the witch’s home content, and though the boys teased, their words no longer hurt. And soon, their words stopped altogether.
Spring turned to summer and summer to fall. Aly made the trek each season to speak with the witch in the woods. Each time, she thought of a new problem to bring to the witch, and each time the witch offered her magic tea in flavors of lemon, or elderberry, or peppermint, or chamomile, or apricot, or strawberry. Aly didn’t know what magic the witch spun, but her tea soothed each ailment Aly suffered until she could think of no more.
And in return, Aly would listen to the witch speak of her woods, of the simplicity of nature, and the beauty of summer. In time, Aly brought gifts; shawls and knitted skirts crafted from her lonely nights, fresh fruit from her time toiling the vineyards, and baked goods from a recipe taught by the farmer’s wives.
After many such summers, the villagers grew concerned.
“Aly, we see that you disappear once a day every season, and we wonder where you go. You return every sunset with a smile, yet we know there is no man for you, nor little ones to fill your heart. You’re not getting younger, dear Aly.”
Aly considered their words over a steaming cup of tea. “There may be love out there, but it’s not for me.” Not even the boys who’d teased her now they had grown from boys to men.
The witch in the woods gazed into her cup. “Magic reflects your own desire. If you seek love, you already know where to find it.”
Aly did not.
Over time, most forgot about Aly’s peculiarities.
But not the witch in the woods.
As the seasons turned, so Aly’s back ached with the harvesting, and her fingers knotted with the knitting. Her skin felt taut and her bones became brittle. She’d grown old, and her trek through the woods tired her. But still, she visited her closest friend every season until there were no more seasons left.
The sun set on her final visit to the witch in the woods.
So too had the witch aged, and the teapot rattled when she poured cranberry tea.
“I don’t think you’re a witch at all,” declared Aly. “Witches do not age.”
The witch smiled. “No potion can halt age, my dear. But you offered me a far greater power; companionship.” She placed down her cup and took Aly’s hand. “Magic reflects your heart’s desire, and true magic is a love brewed over time.”
Aly leaned close and kissed the witch in the woods. “Then this is what I seek.”