THE WITCH OF BRIAR WOOD

ANNA CARSON

The house in the Briar Wood was owned by a woman with white hair. She lived alone most days, with no company but the trees and the animals around her, and the rare plants and occasionally dangerous herbs she kept. Her house was two stories of quaint red brick and climbing ivy and great glass windows, backed by a great greenhouse with wrought iron fixtures, both distinctly out of place in the middle of a forest but somehow still far too easy to miss.

The woman’s schedule went like this: she would wake up at half past six. She would leave her bedroom, one of only two, and go to her expansive kitchen with more windows than walls, all coated in various plants and shelves and bottles. She would open her pantry, which, if one inspected closely enough, seemed just a bit too large for the space it warranted, and would grab something for breakfast. After breakfast, the woman would then tidy the house. If perhaps a broom moved with no hands to guide it, or dust flew from the elegant chandeliers and the overstuffed bookshelves with a flick of her fingers, well, there was no one there to see. With the tidying of the house came the caring for the plants that lived voraciously all around her; the ones hanging from her rafters, the ones climbing her windows, the ones in the many pots and the ones in the earth outside, the ones that filled her great glass greenhouse, which was connected to the house through a glass hallway in the back.

When the plants were cared for, and the house was cleaned, perhaps she would brew something in a pot over the fire, or read a book, or grind herbs. Sometimes she cooked, and sometimes she murmured lullabies by memory or whispered words from ancient pages, and sometimes she would walk through the wood as though she was not human at all but something a little different. The foxes on the ground and the squirrels in the trees never paid her mind, and the wolves and the bears watched her only in wary silence. Sometimes she would hold out her hand, and a robin would settle on her palm and chirp as though it was having a conversation. Sometimes, the woman would talk back.

When night would finally fall, perhaps the woman would sit on her porch with a cup of tea, or in one of the rooms in her greenhouse, and she would watch the forest in the darkness, not with fear but with quiet contemplation. Sometimes she would work under the light of the moon, caressing a flower that bloomed at no other time, or she would walk through the woods to a stream that appeared only under starlight. And then the woman would go to her bedroom, one of only two, and she would fall asleep, as she did most days, alone.

Occasionally, a traveler would stumble upon the quaint house. Only those that needed to meet the woman with the white hair ever truly found it. The woman might invite them into her home, and sometimes they would not blink at the clock that told the wrong time, or the tea that poured itself, and other times they would startle and wonder whether they were seeing things. The woman never corrected them. She would simply sit with them, and eat with them, and if they stayed long enough, she would let them sleep on her couch and wander through her glass greenhouse. Inevitably every traveler left, with a plant or a potion or a piece of advice, and they would miraculously find themselves wherever they had needed to be. The memory of the quaint house was always spotty at best afterward, and no matter how hard they tried, it was never to be found again. This was the way of things, and the woman had long since stopped fighting the cruel song of the Briar Wood. She simply sipped her tea on her porch and stared into the trees, waiting until the next traveler appeared in her glade.

The woman with the white hair received only one repeat visitor, in all of her endless days spent in the backs of minds and on the tips of tongues. At first glance, this visitor looked different every time. But the woman knew that this man or woman or everything in between, blond or red-headed or green-eyed or brown, they were really the same person.

It was in the way they somehow stumbled across her home and didn’t feel the need to take something and leave. It was in the way they accepted her offer of tea, always lavender with far too much honey and the same sharp smile when the woman grimaced at how sweet it must be. It was the way they trailed fingers along the flowers growing in the less poisonous part of her greenhouse, in the way they laughed a dangerous laugh when dancing through her nightshade and belladonna and oleander. It was the same seven freckles brushed lightly across their cheekbones, or the way they smiled a warm smile and murmured “deja vu” when the woman offered the spare bedroom on her second floor. It was the pure and easy happiness that came when they chose, every time, to stay in that second room, when they chose the woman with the white hair, when inevitably they snickered and whispered in her ear “when are you going to ask if we can just share your room?” and raced her upstairs. It was in the music that filled the woman’s usually silent house in their presence. It was the cleaning that was put off because together they strolled through the forest that dared not harm either one of them. The woman with the white hair looked at this visitor and watched them waste away before her eyes, because death may not touch everyone, but it always, cruelly and without fail, sought them out. It stood over the bed they had shared for years now, and looked at her with pitying eyes, before taking a sliver of sunshine soul and leaving, again. Countless times, the woman watched the body of the only person that ever stayed wash away into silver stardust, not even a body to remember them by, because they were never meant to last long. And the woman with the white hair would let herself cry, as she rarely ever did, before cleaning up the quaint house that had not been cleaned for decades now. She would set the broom to sweeping, and the dust to flutter out the window, and she would sit in her greenhouse and stare into the night. And the woman returned, as she always did, to her routine. Waiting, as she always did, until her visitor came back with a new face and a new story but the same taste in tea.