It wasn’t often that the child journeyed into town, but when Mamma would start the day in her great, big hunting cloak, they knew a new adventure was open to them.
Just after Mamma left the cozy, warm cabin to start her hunt, leaving the child with a tender kiss upon their forehead, they smiled to the inward face of the big wooden door, then looked down at their feet, rocking on their heels for a moment, brimming with excitement. Then, once Mamma’s footsteps disappeared into the song of nature, the child hopped up, swiftly turned, and ran.
They ran past the chairs in the main room, past the dinner table and fireplace, now cold and empty after the winter season had passed, and burst into the door of the cabin bedroom. Running straight forward, the child lept high into the air, as high as they could manage to throw themself, and landed with a giggle into the large bed where they and Mamma slept. Just as their body settled into the wrapped plant mattress, they got up onto their knees and crawled to the end of the bed, leaning onto the wall and looking out of the window.
There, the beauty of nature shined radiantly, the spring sun dancing off of the leaves of blossoming trees, the new, baby grass waving in the gentle breeze.
There, behind one of the trees, as if spying on the strange, great, wooden structure ahead, the child spotted a squirrel, locking eyes with it, donning a welcoming grin. The squirrel, small and fluffy, gray and brown, perked up curiously upon eye contact, as if waiting, watching for something to happen. However, the child continued to stare, smiling, and so the squirrel took a cautious step forward. Little by little, one paw at a time, it crept out of the shade of the trees and toward the cabin, soon hopping across the bare, newly green field, making its way to the window.
It was then that an arrow, slender, long, sharp, pierced the ground just beneath the little squirrel, and so, fearing for its life, an expected danger now in its midst, it stopped in its tracks, quickly scurrying away, desperate to escape the sharp claw of death.
With a sigh, Mamma stepped into view, crouching down and pulling the arrow out of the pierced earth, returning it into the sheath upon her back. She then stretched upwards, reaching to the light of the afternoon sun like a young flower, though here, as human, old, mature, worn, her silver hairs glowing upon the sun’s reflection from under her cloak.
Retracting back into a collected stance, she turned to the window, meeting the child’s two eyes with surprise. There, the child continued to lean on the wall, looking outside toward her with a look of slight surprise. They had been watching, hadn’t they?
Remorse weakening her lips, she gave the best smile of comfort she could manage.
She never wanted them to watch her hunting. All of the fairytales she told them of playful creatures, wonderful creatures happily living fantasies would be ruined for them. Yes, the world inside of the log cabin was safest for them, she knew. “This world,” she thought, “is much too violent and hateful. This world is much too blind to see the beauty of you, skatten min.”
She dreaded the thought of them growing up, growing tired of the cozy, warm, wooden log cabin. She dreaded the thought of them leaving one day, having to enter a world that could never understand them, and having to face a world that would only do them harm.
“Please, solskinn,” she thought, waving the child a momentary farewell as she disappeared into the woods, “please, stay in there, forever precious. I can read you all the tales you like. I can tell you any story you want me to. I can do all I can to let you hear of the world without it hurting you, and make the world where you remain as happy as I can manage, but, please, stay in there. Please.”
When the child entered town, they always entered town in one of Mamma’s big, old hooded cloaks, big enough to cover their body and face, with long pants, sleeves, socks, and gloves to match. Even in the summer, they’d show up fully covered, only staying for a moment until the rural heat becomes too much to bear.
It’s just as Mamma once told them. “If anyone comes into the woods, hide in the bedroom, and don’t let them see you. You are far too beautiful for any other person to see, and if they do find you, they will…” Mamma hesitated when she said this, as if she couldn’t think of what to say, as if searching for the right words. “Their jealousy,” she continued, “will send them into a horrible rage, and they may hurt you.”
“What a curse this is, where everyone is astonished at my beauty,” the child thought, “though it makes things all the more exciting.”
When the child entered town this day, just like every other day, they counted their steps, one after the other as the dirt path dissolved into a cobble road, and so then they counted brick by brick. Soon, the air would begin to shift and transform as well, almost as quickly as the child’s face. Soon, the air was full of sound, full of scents, full of life.
How wonderful the town was for the child. Listening in on conversations as they passed, passing by the stalls of the marketplace, observing new harvests and catches, watching the children play before school, and basking in the daily lives of the townsfolk were times ever so joyful, ever so happy.
Apples told of in storybooks would never compare to their real-life counterparts, especially ones from the town market, and the dancing of the townsfolk to the artistry of street musicians was so much more magical than a text description of the exact same events. Though the child loved Mamma’s stories, and loved hearing tales of magic and wonder, being able to live in that magical world in person was much more fulfilling.
Stories were precious and fun, but real life was much more vivid.
After a while of touring the town, the child found themselves leaning onto a wooden fence, staring past it, silently watching.
They knew they had to keep their distance. It was just as Mamma had said, and they figured that even children their age would be jealous of them. “What a terrible curse,” they thought.
There, past the fence, spilling out of the town’s schoolhouse, the children of the town gathered in the schoolyard to play as their parents came by, child by child, to bring them home, the adults usually met with tears and fits, longing to play a moment longer.
Minutes upon minutes had gone by, sad children leaving the schoolyard, wishing their friends a warm goodbye until the next day. There, as the minutes passed, the child still leaned against the wooden fence, watching the children play for what they all hoped would be forever. There, the child watched them race, babble, throw a ball across the air, and more, using up each second of their precious time as best as they could.
Eventually, the children had decided that they would play a game of stiff witch–one player is the witch that has to tag and cast a paralysis spell on each of the other players, and the only way the poor stuck players would have the spell lifted would be for another player to give them a tag. It was fun, simple, exciting, and even tied in with the mysterious witch in the woods that their parents told them about.
Their first game was quite the match to spectate, so exciting that the child wanted to join in now more than ever. Intense dashes across the field, the children stretching their hands outwards to the next to either stun or free them. Upon dodges, lunges, and leaps, the children’s laughter echoed through the town air, dancing around the lone child’s ears like music of a distant land they were on the brink of discovering, and they would remain on that brink until yet another adult walked into the yard, calling for his daughter.
“Aww, but we were just about to play another round, Pappa! Now they won’t have enough players for another game! Can’t I stay a while longer?”
“It’s going to get dark in a while, gutten min. Don’t you want to shop in the market before we go back home?”
Even though his suggestions of leaving were said in questions, there wasn’t much of a question to be asked. After a long negotiation, the two would eventually leave the schoolyard, the young girl waving goodbye as the remaining children pouted in a circle. Stiff witch isn’t fun with only 4 players. It seemed that the children didn’t have any other option but to stop playing. They had already had their fun with the ball, already played tag, and already exhausted every option in the book. With only 4 of them now, all games had become a bit boring. That is, only with 4 of them.
“Can I play?”
The child, still covered in their robes, had approached the circle of pouty children to ask. “I want to play too!”
The other kids hadn’t paid much mind to the child leaning against the fence, and hadn’t really noticed them in the first place, but now that they were here…
“Huh? Who are you,” a short boy with a cat kind of nose asked, “do you go to school?”
Another child, a daughter with pink bows in her hair, gasped and slowly stood up. “Woah… your robes are so funny!” She giggled a bit, reaching for one of the child’s sleeves. “You look like some sort of witch or wizard… you’ve heard of the one that lives in the forest, haven’t you? Do you want to be a witch, too?”
“A witch?” The child was confused. Witches were the sort of thing they heard about in Mamma’s storybooks. They were evil, wretched tricksters who were to be avoided and locked away, punished for their wrongdoings. They didn’t know any such person. “I’ve never heard of–”
“That’s so cool!” another boy exclaimed, jumping up and hopping to the child, towering over them, his fluffy brown hair bouncing with each hop. “You’re so mysterious, too! I don’t think I’ve ever really seen you before… though… I can’t really see your face under that hood.”
“You’re right,” said the cat-nose boy, standing and reaching for the child’s hood with his lanky arms. “Let’s see your face!”
“Wait!” Quickly, the child stepped back, pulling their hood further over their face with their gloved hands. “I can’t!”
The girl frowned, tilting her head, her bows flopping to the side like the ears of a dog. “Why not? We’ve just never seen you before! Can’t you show us?”
After a moment of silence, the child finally spoke up again, their hesitation filled with worries of their disbelief. What if they really insisted on looking? “Mamma says that nobody can see my face.”
“Why’s that?” asked the tall boy.
“That’s because if anyone sees my face… she says it’s so beautiful that people will get mad at me.”
Another moment of silence held the now quiet, sunset town air with a firm grasp until the three standing kids started to laugh hysterically, the girl making another attempt to grab the child’s hood. “That’s so silly! How could a beautiful face make anyone mad?”
Swiping the girl’s hand away, the child recoiled further back. “It’s a curse!” they shouted, holding onto their hood tighter than before, trembling. They had never gotten this close to anyone in the town before, and never this close to being found out.
“A curse…?” The tall boy tapped their chin. “So they really do know the witch in the woods! Were you cursed by them?!”
“Did they attack you? What happened?!” The other children joined in on the speculation, getting closer to the child with their curiosity, getting nearer and nearer until the last child, who had been sitting and watching before now, stood up, his short stature giving him stealth as he crept up behind the other kids, suddenly squeezing between them, creating a barrier between them and the child.
“I don’t believe that such a curse is real!” He crossed his arms, smirking with defiance. “I think that you’re just making up stories!”
The child tried to refute, stuttering and muttering words, but the short boy cut them off. “You can play the game of stiff witch with us, but on one condition!”
There, he pointed at them.
“You have to be the witch,” he then pointed off to the horizon, off to the mountains of forest in the distance where the sun hung above the trees, “and if you can’t freeze us before the sun touches the mountains, then you have to show us your face!”
“And what if I win?” muttered the child.
“Then I’ll believe you, and you can keep your face to yourself.” He crossed his arms again. “So, how about it?”
In this moment, the child had regretted every second of their past visits. Coming so close to town, coming so close to danger. It had all been interesting, exciting, yet so very dangerous. Mamma had been right all along.
They couldn’t leave now, however, for they had gone in too deep to leave at this point. If they ran away now, they could only imagine that the other kids would chase them down, desperate to know the secret of their beauty until it was revealed to them. With such a curse being placed on them, they absolutely could not let this happen.
At the end of their hesitation, the child gave a nod of agreement, and in response, the short boy held out a hand. “Shake on it!”
Slowly, suspiciously, the child brought out their hand, slowly grabbing the boy’s hand, gently shaking. The boy nodded, satisfied.