There once was an ageing woman who helped people to hide. She did so by grasping their consenting hands close to her, asking them if this was what they truly wanted. When the answer was a red-eyed, tearful yes, she would blow a kiss over their head and they would begin to become. She turned them into animals. She would then send swans and cranes into flight, frogs into the coolness of the pond, telling them one word now: “Live.”
When it was safe again, if ever, metamorphosis could come again, on the hiding people’s terms. They could shed their feathers and their skin that breathed under water could shed away and turn human again. Some chose to remain living their fullest of lives as animals, and went on to find lovely mates or packs or lead beautiful, wild, lone lives. Some reemerged when their human worlds melted into the renewal of spring, as if animal lives were simply a magical dream. And some began new lives in new kingdoms, revealing their old selves at the rare human act of true love.
The ageing woman blessed many of the hidden people who could do nothing to repay her, and she was satisfied in giving so much life. But such a vocation was hard to keep a secret for long.
One evening, human hunters flocked to the ageing woman’s house.
Witch, they said.
Monsters, she said.
Before the hunters could seize her or burn a hair on her head, she took hold of a salt shaker and spiralled a circle around herself. All that was left was a black cloak, a drifting shadow to the floor.
Why did you not turn them into beasts as well? asked the salt shaker in her hand when she materialized in another land. A land that apparently needed her. That had summoned her.
What a waste of magic! huffed the woman, turning to the salt shaker. This is better. This will heap burning coals on their heads.
In this new town, she now wore a brown cloak that had been under the black cloak she shed. She began a new life helping people’s harvests, for she had some practice. It was said of her that she could make pumpkins grow to coaches, and make the trees and spirits alike bear fruit. The land prospered under her care, gardens brimming with sweet fruit and vegetables for every season. The need to fight off crows and rabbits was rarer.
But then one evening she heard children crying. Even with the most bountiful harvest that the town had ever known, these children were sent to starve.
The woman knew she got older every time she used magic, but she couldn’t stay silent. She reasoned the children were too young to send to the wilderness, so she blew into a conch shell and summoned those she had helped in the past.
Soon, children were laughing as ravens and swans and cranes and owls, seeming to come from the heavens, delivered gift upon gift of bread and fish.
The woman’s heart recognized some of the birds as descendants of those she had saved before, and she could recall them by name.
But it was only a matter of time before rumor spread that she was a witch. Though she had used her magic to help people before, now people suspected she chose favorites. Human hunters came again, with fattened rumors.
Cannibal, they said.
Greedy pigs, she said.
And before they could seize her, she spiralled a circle of salt around herself. All that was left was a brown cloak, which would secretly warm some of them that night.
You were so close! protested the salt shaker in her hand as she reappeared. You only had to confirm your command and turn them into pigs!
I was close, said the woman, aching in her bones. But I have no time to watch curses play.
Once again, she began a new life in a new place that deep down must have needed her, summoned her. She wore a gray cloak that had been under the brown cloak before. The town enlisted her help in keeping them warm for the coming winter storms of which they could see no end. It was said that she could make coats that felt light as feathers, and made such soft coats from the moon and the infinite night sky. The town prospered with her presence, with the coziest of blankets, the most varied fragrances of candles burning bright and long, the hottest bowls of savory soup.
But then, there arrived a time when some sons and daughters came to her for healing. Despite the warmth and golden lights on the inside of their homes, they fell ill, as if the storm had made its way deep within. The woman told them sometimes this was the hardest spell to overcome. But she asked them what were their favorite animals, clothed them in her gray cloak and listened to their stories all day.
Into her place slinked, curled, and cuddled some other creatures. Wolves, coyotes, dogs, cats, deer and bears came by the fire. There was no slaughter in that house, but hearts beating, and bodies keeping each other warm. Some might even call it a picture of peace. Mammals who couldn’t quite get the habit of hibernating tried to sleep beside human sons and daughters who couldn’t find rest.
Then, throughout the village, rumor spread that she had brought the winter, although she had come in the midst of it. People became distraught about how their loved ones seemed to disappear, even though she reassured them all they longed for was to learn to reappear. Humans kicked down her door and sought to burn away her influence.
Snow witch, they said, as animals all around scattered to never be seen again.
Mere children, she said sadly, watching the fall of creation in her house.
Then she took her salt shaker, spiralled salt around her, and disappeared into the mist, leaving behind as a gift the warmth of new animals and a white cloak like a blanket of snow.
BIO: Ellen Huang is here for the changelings, dragons, and unicorns of this world. She holds a BA in Writing and a minor in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University. She is published in 50+ venues including Moonchild Magazine, Gingerbread House, Yes Poetry, Grimoire, Enchanted Conversation, briars lit, Diverging Magazine, and Amethyst Review, among others. In her college career she was the Managing Editor of Whale Road Review, (where she continues to haunt as a peer reviewer), as well as an original skit director. She runs a blog where she mostly takes people on an adventure to nostalgic, offbeat, or lesser-known movies, coming out with something new and spiritual. Also reenacts Disney scenes on demand. Follow her creative work here: worrydollsandfloatinglights.
This public domain old english engraving of a bird was sourced from here.