The Witch's Wake

By Jeremy Leon Hance

After they left, a pervasive gloom settled over the site. This followed the plundering of the old woman's treasury, filling their pockets with rubies, jewels, gold coins, and various monies to support them and their loved ones till their days' end; this followed the unearthing of every edible bit from the kitchen and cellar, the stuffing of their yawning stomachs with caraway rolls, honeyed walnuts, ginger bread, baked pudding, spiced cookies, and swabian pancakes; this followed the tiny white bird which they pursued from the site, through the woods to its edge, to a small clearing where their father's cottage stood: the greatest treasure of all.

After they left, the woods returned. By late spring the garden became overgrown with vines and weeds. Strong rains bore a hole in the thatched roof of the cottage, bringing hay and puddles to the kitchen floor. The house cat skirted the puddles while making desperate kills of mice, rats, and squirrels; she no longer had the grimalkin to feed her scraps of liver and kidney from the table.

In early summer a raven flew through an open window into the house; it took up residence in the bedroom, among the wet, downy blankets; for awhile the scavenger competed with the cat for kills, but soon it learned patience enough for the cat to finish. By this time the old woman's cow, still tied to a post in the yard and enclosed by a perfect circumference of mown grass, dropped from starvation. The bloated corpse disappeared one inky night, dragged into the forest. In the light of the next morning the path the body took was as visible as a well-trodden road.

A pack of young boar later emerged from the trail; they uprooted turnips and potatoes in the garden. After overturning the garden, they plundered the house, their long snouts searching — better than children's finger — for any crumb. During the raid, the cat hid in a cupboard high above the oven, licking her paws disdainfully.

Autumn followed, and the door to the house, which for months had been at the whim of the wind, finally gave way against a particularly fierce gust. A group of rutting male deer pitched battles in the open yard, scratching, rubbing, and crashing their antlers together in vigorous activity that crescendoed with a single victor. Amid such frenzy, the apples grew fat and ripened. Various squirrels, birds, and caterpillars gorged themselves on the orchard; whatever fruit wasn't eaten off the branch fell to the ground to be cleaned up by trails of ants.

Autumn left quietly; stray leaves collected in the house, blown in through windows, the hole in the roof, and the lost door. A single bear spent a night in the house before seeking better-insulated lodging for her hibernation.

Winter brought snowdrifts as tall as a child. The thatched roof of the house collapsed one night under the weight. Hay, reeds, snow and muck blanketed the floor. The collapse caused the raven to take flight, but he returned soon after to pick his way, curiously, amid the snow and debris. The next snowfall filled the house, so that it was near impossible to tell the cloudy drifts from the half-perished walls. The snow forced the cat from the kitchen into the small cellar, which proved dry and warm, while the raven, through shows of bravado, attracted a singularly black and clever mate.

With spring the snow melted, turning the house's floor into a temporary swamp. Returning birds bathed in the kitchen, and for a few weeks frogs gathered about the bedroom. The cat — now moved to a tree just beside the ruins — ate heartily off sparrows. A clutch of ravens soon joined their parents in stealing from the productive cat. By late spring the strengthening sun had turned the swampy foundation into ground once again.

One evening, out of the gloaming, a pair of young wolves emerged. They made their way into the crumbled house, down to the cellar, where the female gave birth to a litter of six. She reared them there amidst the dusty jars, the mildew, and the strong black dirt. The rest of the pack took up residence around the site; appearing and disappearing like ghosts, they hunted deer, elk, hare, and occasionally boar. They returned to the cellar one-by-one to regurgitate whatever was killed on the hard-packed floor. Soon after the wolves' arrival, the cat disappeared, wandering into the woods' growing shadow.

It was now one year since the children's hurried departure, and only the old woman's oven remained intact. Here, an ash-blanketed skull was left lodged between the oven's bars, where she had pushed and pressed and squeezed in an effort — however vain — to free some piece of her from the unbearable heat which had rushed upon her like an army of infidels. Even after the wolves leave, the stripped countenance still gleams partially; like a half-moon, part snow-white, part ashes and soot, it proves the last relic of a civilized story.