Welcome back to The Witch! This part is a little bit longer than the others, so I’ll keep my introduction short, though may I just say it makes me super happy that people like yourselves have taken the time to read through to this part of my magical tale. Thank you so much!
Once again, if you missed the last part of the story, please check out Part 5. If this is your first encounter with The Witch, I recommend looking at Part 1. Otherwise, the story might be a little bit confusing.
Without further ado, sit back, relax, and enjoy the next installment of Manon and Renoir’s strange experience in the woods.
When I descended the creaking stairs of the witch’s house, I was surprised to see the witch already waiting for me at the front door. Madame Renoir was wearing a bright red cloak and a simple black dress. Her hair was pulled back with a pearl-studded comb. It fell in waves down her back, cascading all the way down to her waist in thick black waves. Her features were set into an odd expression, somewhere between a scowl and a grimace. Her brows were creased together and her lips were a tight red line across her face. She looked like a dark forest spirit, here to destroy humanity for its sins against mother nature, terrifying and beautiful all at once.
I stepped up to the witch, maintaining a polite distance. “You dressed up, I see.”
Renoir didn’t respond, still lost in thought.
“Hellooooo, you in there?”
Renoir blinked up as if she had only just noticed me. “Oh, hello. How long have you been standing there?”
“I just got down.”
“Ah. I see. Well, we haven’t a moment to lose. Follow me.”
I did not move as Renoir opened the door. She looked at me with a quirk of her eye brow.
“Are you coming?”
I folded my arms across my chest. “Do you promise you’re not leading me to my death?”
“Darling, if I was going to kill you, I wouldn’t go through the effort of going into the woods to do it.”
I was still suspicious. How could I not be? Still, it wasn’t like I had a choice. I followed the witch outside.
I was met with the chill night breeze, a cold I had not felt in days. I shivered, unprotected from the icy grip of the wind. It was darker than the void outside, the night lit only by the lanterns dotting Renoir’s home. The woods looked like a tunnel of existential dread, full of monsters and spirits forgotten by human civilization.
“Quit looking like a scared little puppy. It doesn’t suit you,” Renoir quipped, smiling into the darkness.
“Who are you to say what suits me or not, witch?”
Renoir only smiled wider, lifting her arms in a grand arc and whispering something that almost sounded like a song or incantation. The melody was so soft that I could not understand the words, but so sweet that I did not notice the darkness creeping closer towards me, entranced by the witch’s music.
I soon snapped out of my trance, however, when I saw three cloaked figures made of shadows form from nothing around Renoir and myself.
“…you bring a newcomer, Anaïs…” The shadowy figures rasped in unison.
Anaïs? Renoir bowed her head, the only sign of respect I had seen throughout this god-forsaken ordeal.
“She wishes to bear witness to the passing,” Renoir intoned, her voice firm and posture rigid.
“How many is it this time?”
Renoir grimaced, some weight pulling down on her usually stiff, upright shoulders. “I see. Thank you.”
“…are you ready to go? we assume you need transport this evening…”
“…what’s the magic word…”
“…you can walk if you’d like…”
Renoir rolled her eyes. “Please, can you transport us to the meadow?”
The shadowy figures did not have faces, but I swore I felt them smile.
“…as you wish…”
Renoir finally turned to back to me, gauging my blatantly confused expression and reaching out her hand. “Are you ready to go?”
I was beyond baffled. I had so many questions, I hardly had enough room in my brain to think. A million possibilities filtered through my head. I hesitated to take the witch’s hand, staring at it as if it was some sort of trick or trap.
Renoir seemed to catch on. “I promise you won’t get hurt.”
The words sounded sincere, perhaps more sincere than anything Renoir had ever told me before. If anything, it seemed as though Renoir (Anaïs?) was nervous. I took a shaky breath.
“Ok.” I grabbed onto the witch’s shockingly smooth hand and in moments, her arm was around my shoulders and we were engulfed by darkness.
I navigated the same routes I had navigated a million times before, but this time was different. My heart was pounding as if it had been ripped out of my chest and placed on a platter, an exhibit for everyone to see and judge as they saw fit. I had never been so close to Manon, my arm around her warm shoulders so the darkness did not leave her behind. I hoped she could not hear my heart thump, betraying the fear I felt at showing someone I had only just met one of the most secret and intimate parts of my life and craft.
In moments, we arrived at my usual clearing, the part of the forest where the darkness parts and reveals a gathering of lights.
The sentries carrying Manon and me dispersed, dropping us gingerly back on the ground. They would make sure my practice was undisturbed.
Manon looked around, cautious and wonderstruck. “Where are we?”
I refused to look Manon in the eye, focusing on the globs of light floating in front of me. “This is the part of the forest closest to all three of the surrounding villages, including yours. When people die in those villages, their souls wander here, to this very clearing, the center of their world. From here, I send them on.”
“You send them on? Send them on to where?”
“To whatever waits on the other side.” Honestly, I had no idea what waited on the other side. Although I had sent souls on for years and years, I refused to look into where they went, frightened at what I might find.
“I don’t think I understand.”
“My magic is strongest among the dead and their stories. The most important thing a witch must learn to do is listen. All magic is attuned to the stories of earth, whether that be the stories of objects, people, or the planet itself. If you take anything from tonight, take that.”
I paused, unsure of what to say next. “I have never shown anyone but my sentries this clearing. I know that you have heard horrible things about me and my magic. After all, I started most of those rumors myself. But please, for yourself, for me, and for all of the souls that I meet in this clearing every night, do not tell anyone what you are about to see. It will ruin all of the work I have done thus far. Do you swear to it?”
Manon paused, a serious expression on her dangerously honest face. “I swear to it.”
I smiled a small, weary smile. “Thank you.”
I turned away from Manon and faced the first of the thirty orbs flowing around. I forgot about the forest surrounding us and the girl now sitting on a patch of dirt, her skirt billowing around her. I only looked at the pale blue light and cupped my hands around it. I closed my eyes, and gingerly pulled the soul to my chest, hugging it as if it was the most precious thing in the world. Then, I listened.
I heard a name. Behind my eyes, I saw flashes of a hard, long life. I saw a young boy surrounded by siblings, younger sisters and brothers running around and dragging him into their antics. He was the oldest, more than happy to follow his younger siblings and play, enjoying the sweet days of youth until they were cut far too short. I saw them dancing and rolling in fields and causing mischief even as their parents scolded them in the distance. Things were good, if not better than good, until it all came to an end.
I saw the plague sweep through his village, snatching half of his siblings and half of his eyesight along with it. I felt the guilt and the hopelessness that he once did, seeing his family torn apart. That pain would stain the soul forever, even as he tried to move on, to survive and help the rest of his dwindling family.
I saw when he met a girl in his village, a baker’s daughter with pale brown hair and cheeks dusted with flour. I saw them dance together for hours and hours under lit lanterns, smiles on their faces as the aroma of pastries floated through the air. The boy, raised on stories of the greeks told to him before bedtime, felt like Orpheus as he found his Euridice. I saw flickers after that: the boy kneeling on the hard ground, his emotions boiling over in his chest as he laid himself bare to the woman he loved; a small wedding with flowers floating through the air; the promise of a new life borne of the ashes of the old. The man lived happily for several years, building his own family as his siblings, one by one, followed their own futures. He wished that this life would go on forever and ever and that nothing would ever change. He swore he would not lose anyone else.
Time did not listen to the man’s promises and prayers, and like a scythe in the night, began cutting people down. War and famine seeped into the countryside, spreading like poison from the cities. I watched as one by one, the man lost brothers to guns and violence abroad, lost sisters to famine and plague and childbirth. I felt his panic when nothing would grow in once fertile fields, as the ground turned to ash in his fingertips. I heard the man’s insides get carved out from within him, gutted by loss and grief until he could hardly breathe. The man swore death was following him, and anticipated the day that familiar scythe would come for him, once it was done slicing down everyone he ever loved. Of course, I knew that was not how death worked. It was much more arbitrary than that. The man, his wife, and his children fortunately survived the famine, albeit with scars and memories that were not easily forgotten.
Although times were good after that, there was still a shadow of darkness not easily forgotten, a rift between this man and reality that would slowly but surely mend. The last bit of his life was only bits and pieces, the parts he remembered most: his children growing up; a hand clutching his as one by one the people he raised left on their own paths, following the trails of success and the future. I saw the man and his wife sit together and live a quiet life in their solitude, warmed by a crackling fireplace. I saw the coughs that were near the end as finally, in the dead of night, the scythe came for him too, and closed the book on the life of Pierre Beaumont.
This soul was a dull ache compared to some of the others. Pierre had looked death in the eye and escaped twice, but was left marred by his experiences. His soul, like all the others, opened a window to the world outside of my forest, the famine and disease living just outside, the reason Manon came to me in the first place, the reason I refuse to ever leave. Just listening to the story felt exhausting, a numbing pain in my chest. It was my turn to continue Pierre’s story.
I felt Pierre slide from my grip, sinking down into the ground to whatever future awaited him beyond this earth, where he would once again reunite with the people he had seen vanish into the wind. They would greet him with open arms beyond the veil of darkness and meet him expectantly as one of their own.
I opened my tear-streaked eyes to see the soul gone, my consciousness pulled back into the hollow meadow in the middle of the woods. I glanced back at Manon in the grass and gave her my best impression of a smile. “One down. Twenty-nine to go.”
[…] Follow the next part of Manon and Renoir’s adventure in Part 6! […]