The Witch of Forestgreen

by Bob Ritchie

Dennis—a rather large bear with a weakness for tea—Dennis hopped once and skipped once, hopped once and skipped once. Thuds and bumps echoed through the forest.

Carl the squirrel, joining the wide path from the northern fork, started to scurry past and then slowed when he realized who was making all that racket. Carl was on his way to All the Nuts, the old cottonwood-tree market near Glen Meadow. He waited for a moment and then wrinkled his snout. For a squirrel, that’s as big as a fat man’s belly laugh.

“Dennis,” he called out, “the path ‘ere is smooth as a developer’s patter. What’s all this, then?” Carl sat back on his haunches, plainly perplexed: Less expert at deciphering ursine expressions than, say, the brain-like wrinkles and folds of a walnut shell, Carl still could see that Dennis’s serious expression didn’t match his apparent dancing gait.

Dennis’s paws slammed down on the hard-packed path, sending reverberations through the multihued greens that lined both sides of the trail. Falling leaves clattered and a blackpoll warbler hurled an epithet as he winged away from his comfortable perch. After shooting a worried glance into the forest, Dennis growled (normal enough for a bear), “It’s cursed!”

“Oh pshaw!” Carl retorted. He paused to tug his paw through a stubborn knot in his tail before he continued. Turning to face the wide head and massive teeth of his furry pal, he said, “I take this ‘ere path all the time. Off to work, the market—out to Miss Jessie’s. . . . Well, it ain’t cursed no more’n me!”

Usually Forestgreen whispered and shook with the myriad rustlings of tree branches and busy animals. Now, except for the distant rumble of thunderheads gathering over the mountains that ringed the valley, silence ruled.

“Then you better find yourself a good exorcist,” Dennis said. “Anyway, it’s a new curse.” He scratched at a flea and went on, “Don’t you know about the two-legger, the witch, who moved into the old Greystone Mansion?”

The Greystone Mansion was an ancient red oak tree that squatted amidst a new-growth section of the forest. Four generations of Greystones had called it home. Until the scandal.

The Greystones had been a wealthy family of hedgehogs. “Slam” Greystone, the patriarch of the family (come over from the Old Country) had cleared several acres of untamed forest and planted cheap pine, selling each unit at a markup that was probably illegal (but you know that Old Slam had probably greased a paw or two). Cheap housing alone didn’t account for the fortune; Slam had done what hedgehogs do and had dug tunnels that ran from dwelling to dwelling; no telling how many marriages ended when the blackmail couldn’t be paid.

Daddy Greystone, Slam’s grandson, had lost the bulk of the fortune speculating on the Bark Market, days later being arrested for insider trading. After having sold off everything—including the antique, gold toenail protectors—the Greystones had moved to the city and gone on welfare. To stay out of prison, Daddy Greystone had pledged the remainder of his dwindling wealth to Fox McGee, a respected defense attorney. Still, a verdict of “guilty” had seemed inevitable. Daddy ran off with his secretary (McGee’s younger sister), leaving Mama Greystone with all the little ones. Common opinion had it that she was better off: though he cut a dashing figure, Daddy Greystone was somewhat integrity-impaired.

Dennis hopped once, skipped once. He ducked to avoid the low-hanging branches of a poplar. His claws clattered on the hard-packed surface of the trail. “So I heard that the witch got it on a foreclosure deal when Strip Industries filed Chapter 7,” he said.

His normal rumbling growl lightened on that bit: Strip Industries had slashed and burned hundreds of acres of Forestgreen. The surrounding hills held large amounts of copper, apparently worth more than the wild beauty of the forest.

Dennis and Carl proceeded along in silence, thinking cheering thoughts of industrial collapse.

“Anyway, the first thing the two-legger witch did,” Dennis continued, “was curse the path so no one would bother her.” Dennis hopped once. “Yow!” he exclaimed when his foot landed on a sharp rock. He plopped down in the middle of the path. Fell. Carl had to do a quick skitter to avoid death-by-sitting. Dennis’s breath rasped as he rested. “That hurts!” He probed the injured pad with a claw.

“‘Ere then, lemme take a look.” Carl scampered to Dennis’s side and scrutinized the offended paw. “Ye gotcher a bitty little bruise, ye do. Buck up, mate.”

“It hurts,” the great, black bear complained.

Carl ignored him and asked, “Well now, what is it makes ye so sure about this ‘ere curse, then?” He cast a skeptical eye up at Dennis. Born in Hyde Park in London, Carl had seen his life change, for the better, when an accidental boat ride had dropped him just a dozen miles from Forestgreen. Still, his city instincts kept him practical and not much given to such nonsense as curses.

Dennis hid his head behind his paw. His reply was more sheepish than bearish. “I— well—” He took a deep breath, uncovered his face, swatted a fly away from his snout and plunged on, “Now, I don’t want to hear anything from you about this, but, well. . . . I used to keep a little tap on Daddy Greystone’s line—picked up the odd stock tip or two.” Boasting, he added, “my portfolio is pretty healthy. . . . So anyway, when the witch moved in, I remembered it. The tap. The Greystones left while I was hibernating, so I didn’t think about removing it until a couple of days ago. I didn’t imagine she would be any help playing the Market. I was checking to make sure it was clear—the line—cause I didn’t want her to hear the click from my disconnection. You know, in case she was using the phone. And the thing is, she was. Using the phone, I mean.” He cleared his throat; the harsh scraping cough echoed in the uncharacteristic stillness of the Forest.

“Cor! I don’t believe it. Ye listened in then? On a private converse, like? Must think yer bleedin’ MI5.” Righteous anger, something to which Carl and his brethren are prone, washed over him. His whiskers twitched, his tail slashed, his eyes flashed fire.

Defending himself, Dennis explained, “It was an accident. Sort of. I started to put the receiver right down when I heard her voice. I could hardly make out a word—the line always sounded staticky—but she said something about the path and hopping and skipping. It was her mother on the other end, so I figure the witch must have been giving directions on how to nullify the curse.” Dennis shook his head, making the dewlaps of fat under his neck waggle. “Her mother sounded nice. But it must be hard knowing that your daughter is an evil witch.”

“I don’t—” Carl stopped and froze into a posture of attentive listening. Faint sounds of breaking twigs and slapping branches. A fast-moving object was approaching. Without thinking, Carl moved into the shadow of one of Dennis’s haunches. He poked the wiggling tip of his nose around Dennis’s thick leg and shouted, “Who is it?” A scudding cloud blocked the watery light of the sun, and sharp slivers of wind kicked up, sweeping leaves and other forest detritus across the track. Carl shivered and pressed himself closer to Dennis, who dropped one of his paws to shield his friend. They both jumped at the far-off explosion of a rifle. Though it was not hunting season, enough two-leggers ignored the law to make life nerve-wracking.

Still as two stuffed animals, Dennis and Carl followed the approach of a menacing growl. A silver and grey wolf shot onto the pathway, stopping in mid-lope.

Both bear and squirrel relaxed: It was just Andrei. He growled again, and with as much menace, but Carl and Dennis recognized the defensive habit from Andrei’s stories about his run-ins with the Russian mafia back in post–Soviet Union Ukraine. Andrei was actually a very friendly wolf, given to drunken song (he liked his vodka) and tearful remembrances of the family that he’d left in Chernobyl.

“Hey! What you do?” His voice was rough from constant howling: He missed the dark, cold forests of his home, though, by his own account, they compared poorly to Forestgreen. The hoarseness combined with his accent made him difficult to understand.

Carl stepped out from the protection of Dennis’s leg; he ran through the story for Andrei, skimming lightly over the questionable wiretap. Though making no attempt to hide his skepticism, Carl nevertheless gave a fair account.

“It’s wot ‘e thinks, then, Dennis,” Carl concluded, “a witch.”

Andrei sat back on his haunches and thought for a long while. Carl and Dennis, content to wait, waited. Gray clouds shrouded the afternoon sun, and the shadows came out to play, dancing along the tree-covered path, reducing visibility in all directions. Finally, Andrei shrugged his shoulders, saying, “Tapping of phone of Batko, of father, no good.” Andrei’s mild gesture and look contradicted the harsh content of his words. “The witch. We should be going and seeing, tak?”

Carl turned to Dennis. “So Dennis, are ye still up to it?” He shivered when a stream of chill air spilled down the path.

Dennis took a deep breath, as if sucking up a fresh draught of needed courage, and nodded hard enough to set his jowls a-shake. “Let’s do this thing.”

The old wolf taking the lead, the trio approached the long lane that led to the Greystone Mansion. Hopping and skipping and jumping came easily to Carl—less so to Dennis, but he’d gotten some practice today. Andrei had two bad legs. Hopping, he could manage, but at each skip and jump, it seemed sure that he would fall to the ground.

They turned onto the lane, leaving the icy current of air and entering a zone without wind or weather. Though the sky had mostly cleared, the late-afternoon rays barely penetrated the thick cover. All around them, the forest seemed to be holding its breath. A smell of damp earth rose from the surface of the narrow lane. Passing a mossy plaque with the barely legible title “Greystone Mansion,” the three companions slowed, ditching the frolicking but not gait, instead creeping forward on twelve silent paws. Until Dennis tripped over a small, fallen pine tree that blocked the narrow lane. Shushing each other and their fallen comrade, wolf and squirrel waited as Dennis lumbered to his feet. “Sorry.” His hoarse whisper carried. Thinking of the nearby witch, Carl searched the shadows for furtive movements or black hats or bubbling cauldrons.

Three heads swiveled as one: A strong, unnatural odor had drifted from the way ahead and masked completely the fresh scent of recent rain.

“There it is,” Carl gestured with his tiny paw at a dilapidated old oak that towered over the stand of pale aspens surrounding it. The young and slender trees seemed to be guarding the older one, keeping it safe from intruders.

“We go,” said Andrei. They passed a toy digging set—rust blooding the edges of the implements—that the Greystone children had left behind. They passed the hollow stump that had been the servants’ quarters. Termites dug and swarmed over the soft, yellow heart.

The ever-sharpening odor knifed through delicate membranes.

They wound through the guarding aspen, passing the tiny brook where the family had bathed daily. The aseptic pungency of clean, running water almost succeeded in rinsing away the alien stink. The steady gush, unbroken by stones, reflected the afternoon light, all spangly silver.

A last turn and they entered a wide clearing; it was bordered by the aspens behind and to the right. On the left, a sloping hillside grew high enough to partially block the lowering sun. Tall grasses and low bushes clutched at the soil.

Before them loomed the mansion. Heavy rains had warped and stained the cracked planks that covered the windows; holes perforated the walls of the once-elegant home: thugs, thieves, and indifferent nature had been at work. A gentle sigh of drifting air surrounded the trio. Without a word, they sat, examining the structure. The unnatural smell had grown strong enough to burn. Andrei snorted, attempting to blow it out. He crept forward, noiseless. Carl and Dennis hesitated, followed. Andrei’s whisper sounded like rock scraping wet wood. “Come, come.”

The mansion spread before, them, mute and still. It appeared ominously empty of life. That’s what Dennis whispered to the other two, “It appears ominously empty of life.”

“Gods! ‘Ow can a place look ‘ominously empty’? Yer imagination’s makin’ a proper fool of ye!” Scornful in voice, Carl nevertheless did not hasten to pass either of his companions.

“Well, it looks abandoned,” said Dennis, “and why would anyone abandon a new home? That they just started refurbishing?” He swung his great head to the right, pointing with his nose. “Look, there’s a stack of planks, on the side porch.” He breathed deeply, “Cedar, it smells like. Expensive.” He had a point: Ominous. The three inched forward.

They turned a 90°corner, nearly running headlong into the tall double doors of the Greystone Mansion.

Andrei inhaled with a loud rush. Dennis sat back so hard that his breath whooshed out. The bear’s expression said something to the effect of I’d really rather be scratching my back on a nice, rough tree. To give him credit, he stayed put.

“Those’re some doors, then, aren’t they? A little exaggerated, mebbe, fer some teeny hedgehogs.” Furry shoulders hunched, fluffed-out tail rigid as a branch of black ash, Carl wasn’t so scornful now. A single gust of wind slashed at the surrounding trees, setting the branches to clicking and crackling, then stopped.

Andrei released his held breath with a scraping “chuff.” Dennis jumped. “Big,” commented the wolf. His silver/gray fur stood erect. He looked like a big puff ball; it would have been funny in any other circumstance that didn’t involve two-legger witches and scary houses.

A simple—large—set of doors, the wood cracked from age, they were dusty and grey, and with a hint of polished black. Level with Andrei’s shoulder was a single brass and crystal knob, tarnished and covered with smeared water-spots. Victorian curlicues carved into the two corners above the door threatened to uncoil and attack. On the low wooden stoop, someone had carved KV loves— Rusty brown stained and spattered the asymmetrical slice where, evidently, the carving blade had slipped.

Clearing his throat with a low growl, Andrei broke the silence. “We are to begin with the knocking, tak?” His accent, already close to incomprehensible, had thickened. Nerves.

The odor had coalesced into sharp, nearly visible wisps.

Before they could so much as touch paw to panel, the right door flew open, too fast and too easily for its size.

She stood, tall and beautiful (in a very two-legger way), with a question on her delicate-featured face. She wore paint-spattered blue jeans (the paint the same rusty color as the stain on the stoop), ragged at the cuffs, one knee sporting the beginnings of a hole. The witch—a youngish-looking two-legger girl—rested most of her weight on her left leg—so that her hip jutted out. Her right leg was bent slightly at the knee. Splotches and globs of paint covered her t-shirt and jeans, reaching all the way down to the scuffed, brown leather sandals. Originally, the shirt had been pink, with a pattern of swirling colors that twisted around the words “Sex Wax.” Too large, the shirt had been gathered and tied at the waist. The resulting space revealed a midriff tanned beach-bum brown. Little metal rings on her worn sandals jingled when she shook her narrow foot to discourage a mosquito from supping on it. She wore her long, blonde hair tied up in a pink and blue scarf. The pink of the scarf was several shades darker than that of the t-shirt.

“Dudes!” she said. Her voice came out light and half-amused. The girl (witch?) threw a rueful look at the dripping paint roller in her hand. From it, from her clothes, from the color-dotted tongue-and-groove plank floor came the unnatural, still assaultive, smell. Droplets of sharp-colored scent spattered her bare arms and her flushed cheeks. Carl, peering in, could see the reason for her dismay: she was painting the baseboards, and either she didn’t have an edger or she didn’t know any better. Carl had been a painter’s assistant before landing in Forestgreen. He should have recognized the smell. Fear, perhaps, had blocked the memory. Now that he remembered, the odor had lost—for him—its aspect of wrongness. Well, it was still wrong: Who used paint in a forest? Why would anyone want to spend hours and resources covering the beauty that nature provided free of charge? Carl shook his head. Two-leggers! Swathes of the stuff from the roller coated the walls as high as two to four inches above the baseboards.

Waiting for them to answer, she tucked a stray wisp of blonde above a pink ear and in so doing left a rusty smudge high on her cheek. Dressed like that and standing so, she appeared utterly unthreatening. The smear of paint on her face gave her the aspect of a little girl playing with mommy’s lipstick.

Carl stepped forward. “G’day M’Lady—” he paused, not knowing what to say. And feeling foolish for his small fears. He turned an angry look on Dennis—now hiding behind jet black paws—then returned to blurt out in a rush, “See, Dennis was kinda eavesdroppin’ on a conversation ye had with yer mum, and he said ye was a witch what cursed the road, so he was hoppin’ and skippin’, hoppin’ and skippin’. Course, I thought it was a right load a hooey. Me and Andrei both. Anyways, we thought we’d come and find out.” He stepped back, relieved.

She laughed a tinkly laugh that called up the memory of small, silver bells chiming in a fresh breeze. “Like, wow! Awesome.” She laughed again and it was small waves breaking on sparkling, virgin sand, “I mean, like, I been called a rhymes-with-witch but, like, a witch witch? Too far out, man!” The girl balanced the paint-saturated roller on a paint-filled tray and her paint-spotted hands on her paint-spattered hips. Strong hands. Her splayed fingers pressed into the skin of her waist. She had slender wrists and arms, and the narrow cords of muscle stood out in alto relief. “See, I was, like, talkin’ at my mom, y’know? Tellin’ her about this rad place and how much I’m, y’know, diggin’ it? And, like, I was sayin’ ‘Mom, it’s too, y’know, far from the beach, but, like, if you take the old path it’s, like, only a hop, skip, and a jump from your condo.’” She shook her head, giggling. “A witch! Radical.” The roller began to slip from its perch and she whipped around to catch it. Fast. She turned back to the three and said, “Hey! It’s, like, pretty caloric in here, dudes. I gotta, like, unblock the windows. You want to, y’know, suck on some brews er somethin’?”

Carl, the first one to successfully wade his way through the girl’s muddy speech, turned to his friends, saying, “I am feelin’ a mite parched. Wotcher say, gents?”

Nods and Sures all around; the blocked-window interior was much hotter than the clearing they had left, than the front porch on which they waited, so everyone seemed amenable to the suggestion (even though beer made Carl’s stomach bloat, Andrei had already been at the vodka, and Dennis preferred tea). Feeling foolish does that. At her beckoning gesture, Carl, Dennis, and Andrei filed in behind her, careful not to bump up against any of the fresh paint. Outside, the rain that had been threatening all afternoon began to fall in great washes.

The mug she handed over to Carl had a chip in the handle. She smiled as he struggled to lift it with his two thumbless paws. For a moment, Carl imagined a glint in the guileless eyes. Then a shadow, perhaps, as a cloud blocking the sun. The bitter beer was frosty cold.

After waiting for the drugged drinks to take effect, she killed and froze Andrei and Dennis. Not much more room in the old walk-in, she thought.

She killed Carl too—had him that night for dinner. She kept his tail and put it on the antenna of her ‘65 Mustang. It looked totally, like, rad. . . . Y’know?

more Complex Fairy Tales

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