The boy is too thin to eat; that’s what you tell yourself, in the early days. He’s too thin, yes. Needs fattening up. And the girl, the girl is plump enough, but she is his sister and they are a package deal, so you break off pieces of sugar cane and sweet breads and you feed and you wait.
They are the first children to come to you in some time, and that’s important because you always come by them willingly, never taken, never stolen. Tricked and coerced, maybe. Enticed, certainly. But never stolen.
The boy is small, still, the girl older and inherently suspicious, but you feed them and offer them a warm bed and a sturdy roof to protect them from the misty woods, and they are tired, and they are hungry, and the boy agrees, so the sister stays.
A day goes by and then a week. The girl asks where your family is, what you’re doing out in the forest, so far from the village, all alone. You tell her you prefer the quiet. You tell her the monsters in the woods are just stories to scare small children.
She doesn’t believe you.
The children sleep, and you consider the kettle. Its basin gaping and empty, awaiting its fill. Your reflection is warped on the side. She blinks.
You pull at the drooping skin of your cheeks, wonder where the time goes. Weren’t you apple-blossomed and smooth not so long ago? The lines you don’t mind so much, the ones at your eyes are evidence of days when you were quick to laugh and slow to scowl. The girl watches, steely eyes, and you drop your hands. What they must see in you—a wizened thing, a baggy skeleton.
It’s been so long since you’ve had a proper meal. Only a little longer now.
You run out of excuses too soon. The boy is fat now, round and joyful as a piglet full of its mother’s milk. The girl tells you, we should be going, and you say, what’s a few more days, and she says, they’ll find us, you know, they will.
She knows; she suspects.
The boy says, I like it here, and, please let’s stay. But the girl knows; she knows, and it means you have very little time left. Must act quickly now, mustn’t delay.
The children taunt the witches and the witches eat the children—this is the way it’s always been. This child, this tiny boy with his rosy, pre-pubescent face and his easy smile, he is not meant to tug at your heartstrings. What would your mother, bless her soul, say? It is the way of things, yes.
The girl runs. No surprise, but you wish you’d done more to stop it. Perhaps if you’d only eaten them sooner…. But no matter. The cat’s out of the kettle now, and trouble to come with it. The girl runs. She was always fiercer than the boy—suspected a monster in you and played games of trying to trick you into death. She was clever, but you are old and canny. You know better than to play with your food.
Still she ran.
You’ll have to eat the boy. Nothing else for it. They were a package deal, and now the girl is gone. He is fat and growing—will feed you for a full winter, at least. Keep you alive until the days grow long again. He will make a good meal. No matter that you’ll be sorry to see him go.
You send him to bed, break off a piece of brittle for him to suckle. Sleep now, pet, you tell him, and he trusts you, so he does.
It won’t be so bad, you tell yourself. This is how things are, the way they are supposed to be. You’ll miss him; yes, you will regret this child. But he’s only a child, and you’re only a witch. No point being sorry for what you are.
The boy has his last meal. In the morning, you will stoke the fire and begin to prepare yours.
The fire is on the stove and the kettle is on the fire when the girl returns. She comes with villagers and pitchforks, flaming torches and vitriol. They hate you more than just for what you’ve done, but what you are. They’ve come to see you burn.
The boy is awake. He comes to stand beside you at the window, watching the red glow of flames shine like embers through the trees, watching the hateful people with their hateful fire walk through your forest, your little clearing.
The boy says, they’re going to kill you.
I’m a powerful old crone, you tell him. I’ve survived worse than this.
The villagers shout and wave their torches. The girl holds her flame high, yells, burn the witch!
The boy tries to grab your hand. You say, Go, be with your sister. And he trusts you, so he leaves.
The heat of the fire rises and the kettle bubbles over. The boy—he would’ve been tender and sweet, but perhaps it is better this way. You are the last of your kind and that is torment enough, but to question what you are—the way you’ve always lived, how you must live—that is a torment far worse.
The crowd approaches, and you think, I am tired, and, this is how it is meant to be. What would your mother say? Weak, silly girl. Foolish heart.
But you are not a girl. You are an old witch, and you’ve had your fill more than most and many more than enough.
These two children, they will be your last. They will be the last, yes, and even they will not survive you. Just a bit of antimony mixed in the treacle—always did the trick. Poor boy. The village will mourn them even as you burn. You are almost sorry. Almost. There’s nothing for it now.
Rachel Brittain is a writer from Arkansas. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hyperion and Theia, The Conium Review, and as the title story in My Name Was Never Frankenstein. When she isn’t playing around in fictional worlds, she can be found writing for Book Riot and cuddling animals.