The woods were grey and wet. Rain fell through the canopy in a variety of ways. Splashing off branches and leaves in large drops, and in other places, lightly misting the air. The young pregnant woman moved through the familiar woods of her youth on bare feet, deftly leaping through the brush to the start of a path she never dared to visit before. Desperation fueled her. Though full-term and overdue in her pregnancy, she still moved like a doe through the mountain forest. Her bulbous belly didn’t hinder her from the trek. Deep in the middle of the dark woods, she came upon the trailhead, pausing a moment to consider if her choice was a wise one, quickly remembering it was her only one. She pressed on after wiping her stringy, wet, brown hair from her face. Her hand was covered with so much filth from navigating the woods and brush, she inadvertently smeared it across her face. Sweat dripped from her forehead bringing every bit of it to her mouth, giving her a taste of it all. The young pregnant woman spat in disgust before carrying on. The trail gave way to a well-worn path, free of branches and logs, no longer in her way or underfoot. As if the woods said to her, the hard parts over. Inside, she knew, this was only a sign that her true fear should begin.
Several hours on the path, turned the grey, wet day, to night. Her feet walked the path on their own, as her mind wandered, thinking about what waited ahead for her. Would it be salvation? Or damnation? She could no longer see, the dark of the woods blocked out all light from above, the canopy, thick and impenetrable from the stars and moon that shone brightly that night, but not there, and not for her. The path below her was smooth, keeping her feet on course. Eventually, the light of a fire appeared ahead of her at what was the paths end. Crudely built structures in a semi-circle around a fire pit suggested she had found her destination. She walked into the light of the fire slowly, scanning the surrounding structures for any signs of life. Anticipation and fear flooded her making her ears ring, her heartbeat was as fast as a rabbit’s. It was hard to tell what the structures were in the flicker of the fires light. She could hear rustling in and around them but couldn’t discern what manner of creature might call them home. Rats, vermin, something more sinister? Her imagination saw little demons, ducking and hiding, here and there, waiting to pounce on her should she let her guard down.
“Are ya here?” She called out just as she reached the fires edge, looking from left to right, still scanning the ominous structures, listening for an answer, looking for someone or something, to make itself visible. Her adrenaline spiked when a voice responded from somewhere in the darkness.
“Might be we is…” the voice came from all around her, “Might be ya still all alone…” the wind howled, and the young woman spun in place, looking behind her, then back at the fire. The voice in the darkness sounded like a snake’s hiss, making her look at her feet to be sure there were no snakes about. Her skin crawled at the thought of snakes and a shiver raised the hair on the back of her neck. She stepped closer to the fire to bathe in its protective light. Its protection was but an illusion, and even as close as she stood to the fire, she was numb from the cold of the wet night.
“I come for ya help,” The young pregnant woman called out again, talking to the darkness outside the range of the fires warm light. The wind picked up again, like whispers, bickering in the dark, causing her to shiver even more. Fear joined the cold, chilling her to the bone. The fire suddenly flashed bright and hot, sending her back a few feet from the heat. It came alive, reaching out at her in waves like a heartbeat pulsing ever closer to her, “I say, I come for ya help!” she screamed at the fire, “I know a price to be paid!” she waited, looking around again, fear choking her, like a lump in her throat, making her swallow hard in a feeble attempt to clear it. The fire calmed, its light and ferocity dwindled, allowing the surrounding darkness to blacken the area once again within the ring of structures, obscuring all but the fire from her view.
“To be paid…” the voice hissed, echoing in the darkness. The wind howled longer, like a wolf baying.
“I say, yes, I pay.” she said edging closer to the fire, chasing the heat to warm herself, looking at it as though it was the fire she bargained with. A door on a structure across the fire from her opened with a long, loud, creak. The young pregnant woman’s stomach twisted in nervous anticipation of what was about to happen. She felt like she was going to throw up. The young pregnant woman steeled herself, culling the urge to lurch over and release anything that might still be in her stomach. A soft light emanated from inside the structure. The woman of the woods stepped into the doorway, blocking the light behind her. She was a quiet silhouette in the doorway, sizing the young woman up. The young woman felt fear welling up, building inside her, the longer they stood staring at one another in silence. Many stories were told of this woman of the woods. Few dared the climb up the mountain or even claimed to have. Old wives told stories of this woman and her supernatural power, wielded for a sinister price. Of course, the young woman never knew anyone personally who visited the woman, just rumors and ghost stories. She could grant wishes, some said. Others claimed she served a dark, evil lord, that visited her at night to satisfy his needs of the flesh. In return, he gave her power.
“I say-” The young woman started to speak again, if only to break the silence for herself.
“I hear ya, girl.” The silhouette hissed, then spat at the fire, which burned and crackled slightly higher in response, illuminating the woman in the doorway enough to see her body. She wore a long skirt that went to the ground and then some. The edges were tattered from ages of dragging on the floor. It looked to have once been a long, white, flowing dress, that eventually became her only piece of clothing. She turned sideways and leaned her back against the door jamb. The darkness of the night gave way to light, as a break in the clouds let the moon shine down on the open area the structures were built upon.
“You Delilah, Jenny Barnes girl.” The woman of the woods said scooting down and up again, scratching her back with the edge of the door jamb.
“I am.” The young woman, Delilah, walked around the fire, staying close to its edge, still facing the woman.
“Momma know your mind, girl?” The woman of the woods put her hand over her head, to the top of the door frame, and hung on it slightly. The light shone off her arm, illuminating her face, just enough to make out the woman’s soft features. Delilah made her way closer to the door, still several feet in front of the woman of the woods. The dueling, flickering lights between the fire and the candles that burned inside the home, made it hard to get a good look at the woman in the doorway. Delilah imagined the horrible face of an old wicked witch, twisted by time and evil, toothless, maybe even scarred.
“She dead. Go on four year now.” Delilah bowed her head with reverence at the mention of her dead mother.
“Whatcha know ‘bout me, girl? Come up heya, screamin’ for my ’tentions.” The woman of the woods hissed, eyeing Delilah, waiting for her answer. Delilah snapped her head back up to look at the woman, answering quickly.
“Know ya scare me off hours ago, iffin wasn’t needin ya so bad.”
“Most folk scare off long ’fore now.” The woman of the woods chuckled. She turned and went back inside her home, “Come inside, girl. Bring a bundle fo da fire witcha. I heya gots ta say.”
Delilah grabbed a bundle of twigs and sticks to the side of the door, as she did, a snake slithered from under the pile, between her legs quicker than she could react. She froze, holding her breath as it disappeared behind her into the night. She was relieved it was gone without tasting her ankle and breathed a long sigh. It still gave her a shiver, as sure as if it had crawled up her leg. Inside, the small structure was lit up with candles, it looked inviting, but smelled offensively strong of dirt and mold. The woman of the woods waited for her, sitting on a stump a few feet past the center of the room. There was a chair in the room, but the woman of the woods sat on the stump. She pointed to a makeshift fireplace on the side wall, opposite to the door. Delilah went to the fireplace and dropped the bundle of sticks in a kindling box near the fire.
“Sit.” The woman of the woods pointed at the one chair, several feet across from her. Rain suddenly came on without warning, violently. The sound was so loud it made conversation impossible. They sat looking at each other as the rain pounded the roof of the one room home so hard, it threatened to bring the roof down atop them both. Delilah looked up at the roof a moment then scanned the home as she waited for the rain to subside. The woman of the woods never once took her eyes off Delilah. There were shelves all along the inner wall, surrounding them with various tins and bottles, filled with mysteries only the woman of the woods was privy to. It was much warmer inside than it appeared, the longer they sat in silence, the more comfortable Delilah became across from the woman of the woods. She looked much too young to be living out her years in a shack in the woods, high on a mountain, she wasn’t an old woman at all. Her features were soft, and she could almost be pretty if it wasn’t for all the dirt that covered her face in streaks. She started to become warmer to the young mother to be, the longer they sat exchanging glances. Delilah didn’t understand why, but she started to feel like she had known this woman all her life, like a sister, or an aunt. The spell being cast over Delilah was much too subtle to be noticed by the poorly educated young woman.
“They say you in the know of babies and such.” Delilah said as soon as the rain let up enough for her to be heard. Her hand went to her belly, rubbing it slowly, lovingly.
“You be from da farm, but you in da city now, how come? Da earth is in your family, girl.” The woman of the woods reached down to the base of the stump, grabbing a handful of dirt from between the large roots at her feet, “Your man, he take ya away from da farm?”
“How you know what?” Delilah looked at the woman of the woods, surprised at her knowledge about her life. It made her bring her other hand protectively to her belly.
“I’m in da know bout lots.” The woman of the woods chuckled, holding her hand full of dirt palm up, spreading her fingers, and letting it all fall back to the ground. Delilah noticed suddenly that the woman of the woods wasn’t wearing a top and was bare-breasted, her long brown, dirty hair, covered her just past her waist. Her skin was a dirty gray and her hair was full of leaves and twigs. Parts of it moved on its own in the flicker of the candlelight, like mice under a sheet, “I’m in da know why ya heya too.”
“How you know way up here, on dis mountain, what haps down low?” Delilah cocked her head to the side, skeptical of the woman across from her.
The woman of the woods leaned forward, put both hands on her knees, and looked into Delilah’s face, her eyes wide in a snarling response, “I say I know, ain’t nuff fo ya?”
“S’pose.” Delilah looked away, fearful she offended the woman of the woods, terrified of her snarling visage.
“Y’all ants down dere, like a cloud, I looks down, see y’all.” The woman of the woods sat back, relaxed, and waved her hand in front of her as she spoke. She spotted something on the back of her hand. She inspected her hand closely, then set upon it with her teeth, gnawing at her knuckles. It was loud and slobbery, the noise she made. She was enjoying the taste of whatever it was. For Delilah, it was grotesque to watch and it frightened her even more, if that was possible. It was like watching a dog lick the taste of meat from its master’s hand. The woman of the woods suddenly stopped herself, catching sight of the young girl’s disgust and fear. She slowly put her hand back down, after giving it one long final lick. “I know what goes on in dere.” She pointed to Delilah’s pregnant belly with her freshly cleaned hand, then cleaned her teeth with her tongue and swallowed whatever it was she found on the back of her hand.
“You help me then?” Delilah looked at her, disgusted and hopeful, all in one look.
“I says I know, no say I help,” The woman of the woods said sitting back on her stump, “I feels, maybe ya not think all the way ’fore ya come up heya.” The woman of the woods waved her hand, motioning around the room.
“I need ya help!” Delilah stood up grabbing her belly, then started to cry, “Doc say they dead inside me!” She walked over to the woman of the woods quickly, falling to her knees and bowing her head, “I want my babies! Please help me! I pay a price! I swear I pay it!”
The woman of the woods looked down at the desperate girl before her, smirking with satisfaction. She was just the right amount of desperate. Yes, she would bargain with young Delilah. She put her hand on the girl’s head and caressed her.
“Hush child, hush. Doc don’t know nothing but school teachins. Ya babies not dead. I hears ‘em. Dey talking to me same as dey do you.” Delilah looked up at the woman of the woods surprised, “Dat’s right, ya know what I sayin. Dey talkin inside ya, make ya know dat doctor, he wrong.” She looked down her nose at Delilah with a comforting smile. She nodded her agreement with the woman of the woods. “Two babies.” The woman of the woods stood up and walked to a shelf, leaving Delilah on the floor by the stump, “Feed da fire, girl. Get warm. Too late go back down dere.” She motioned toward the door with a lazy wave of her hand. Delilah did as she was told and went to the fireplace by the wall, feeding a handful of sticks to the fire a few at a time. She wiped her face and eyes. Tears had started to flow in relief of hearing that someone else believed her babies were still alive. The woman of the woods walked across the room to the fireplace, tossing in some powder that immediately erupted in the flames. The smoke hit Delilah’s face, enveloping her head in a cloud making her cough and inhale a good deal of it. The smoke clouded her mind instantly, “Come lie heya and rest now, quiet.” The woman of the wood’s words echoed, like they came from across a canyon. To Delilah, the woman of the wood’s seemed to vanish and reappear on the other side of the room, near some bedding on the floor that was not there before. In reality, the haze that took the young mother’s attention, lasted a lot longer than the mere seconds she thought it did. Delilah walked over and sat on the bedding, then let the woman of the woods tenderly lay her all the way down. The woman of the woods stroked Delilah’s hair, whispering words she could not understand. Delilah felt so relaxed her body melted into the bedding. “This man a yours, he no fight ya comin’ up heya?” The woman of the woods stroked her head from the forehead to the back, hovering over her, whispering her question softly, further inducing the young mother to a state of utter relaxation.
“I ain’t say word ta nobody bout my comin’s and goin’s today.” She looked up into the eyes of the woman of the woods, who hovered above her. Her features seemed to shift and blur, making Delilah blink like something was in her eyes. The haze the smoke brought on still lingered, making her sleepy.
“Tell me,” she hissed in a low whisper, “This man a yours, take ya away from da farm and put ya like this, he a good man?” The woman of the woods crawled on all fours around young pregnant Delilah, keeping her face close to hers so she could whisper in her ear.
“Best I can hope for.” Delilah kept eye contact with the woman of the woods as she moved to her side.
“He eva hurt ya?” The woman of the woods asked and put her hand on Delilah’s round belly, lying next to the young girl. They were like best friends at a sleepover.
“Sometimes.” Delilah answered blinking slowly, becoming so relaxed she felt like she was in her own bed.
“Think long, girl.” The woman of the woods laid her head down next to Delilah’s head, still whispering, “How ya think he be treatin’ young girls, alone at night, just ta bloomin’ in dey young bodies?”
“What you mean?” Delilah could hardly open her eyes, instead, she just turned her head toward the woman’s voice.
“Ya know what is I asks.” She stroked Delilah’s head again.
Delilah thought long and hard, not opening her eyes and scrunching her face until an answer came to her.
“I takes ’em away long fore then.”
“Ya ’ready takes ’em away now, girl.” The woman of the woods sat up on her left elbow and again rubbed the young girl’s belly in its entirety, like a beach ball with her right hand.
“I reckon, after they born then?” She asked, not understanding, then yawned. The young woman felt so at ease with this once terrifying woman of the woods, that she was almost embarrassed for her fear. It made her smile, the connection she felt to this once frightening woman, her eyes were still closed, so relaxed... rescued.
“I hear ya babies, I’m a comin’ ta help ya, my babies. Hush now.” The woman said then whispered to Delilah words that made her fall completely paralyzed under her spell. The spell of the woman she had come to for help. “Dey say long ago; I ne’er have babies again. Dey see ta it e’en. But now, two come a knockin’.” The woman of the woods sat up quickly, moving to her knees beside the young pregnant woman. She pulled a knife from her waistband, licked one side of the blade, then sprinkled a special powdered mixture on it. She cut Delilah’s dress and ripped it from around her bulging belly. Delilah’s eyes popped open wide. Unable to move or make a sound, her eyes darted around, finding, then studying the face of the woman of the woods. Shock and horror filled her, trying to understand what was happening. This was no longer the sisterly, warm woman, but a witch indeed, whose whole face snarled, viciously baring her teeth, exposing a wicked intent. “I’m a take dese gifts ya dunno how ta use. Ya gonna go see ya mama now and know dey gonna be cared for by me. Dat,” Her eyes lit up as she brought her face inches from Delilah’s, looking her dead in her eyes, “Ya price ta pay!” Delilah gasped, trying to speak or move, but could do neither. The woman of the woods smiled at her with one hand on Delilah’s belly. “Shhh, I makes it so ya feel nuttin,” She cocked her head violently, then leaned down beside her ear and whispered, “Iffin ya hang round some, might be ya see ya babies ’fore ’en ya go see ya mama.” She puffed her breath forcefully as she spoke, assaulting the young woman’s ear with hot breath and spit. Delilah whined a guttural, whimpered cry, tensing her whole body, trying to gain control of herself and stop what was happening. Tears flowed freely from her fear and helplessness. The woman of the woods ignored Delilah feeling around on her belly. Searching with her open palm against the young woman’s belly. She felt a baby kick against the skin. A wicked smile spread across her lips and her eyes lit up, “Dere ya be, ma darlins.” She moved her hand and knife across the belly to the top, just below the sternum. She placed her fingers against the sternum then moved lower until her fingers fell into the skin no longer on bone. Her hands rose and fell with the fear driven, sporadic breathing of the young woman. She put the blade flat against the palm of her hand, aiming down into the belly, matching her fingers, then pushed it in until it burst through the skin of the pregnant belly. The woman of the woods shoved her hand, fingers first, into the opening, along with the knife, to protect the babies from the blade. She grabbed the skin below the sternum and cut along the top of the rib cage, meticulously along both sides. Delilah looked on in horror as the woman of the woods grabbed her rib cage for support as she cut. Delilah could feel her boney, dirty, fingers, grabbing the bones of her ribcage as her skin was flayed open. Her mouth was a gasping spasm. The woman of the woods stood up, dropping the knife to the floor then walked around to the young pregnant woman’s feet. She kicked her legs apart, spreading them, then knelt between them. She leaned over Delilah’s belly and grabbed the long cut with both hands. The woman of the woods rocked toward Delilah and back again, counting in her head, and when she was ready, she yanked with all her might, ripping the flesh and muscle downward, unevenly, in a jerking, staggered, bloody mess. One side came free much easier than the other, completely exposing what lay beneath. The young woman gurgled. Her eyes rolled back in her head. The woman of the woods had lied to her. Delilah felt every bit of pain from the horrific act being visited upon her. The woman of the woods pulled the babies free of their mother’s dying body, still in the placenta. She wrapped her arm around the umbilical cord as she stood back up, cradling the children still encased in the large embryonic sac. She was so quick in her work that the young mother was still exhaling her last breath. She put her foot on the motionless young mother’s body and yanked the umbilical cord. The body jerked and grunted, but it did not break. The woman of the woods briefly glanced around for her knife, then raised her arm up, bringing the umbilical cord to her mouth. She started chewing on it as she pulled slowly, keeping tension on the cord until she gnawed her way through it. She chewed and swallowed every bit that broke free in her mouth, starving to be fed the flesh of the woman at her feet. The woman of the woods carried the children over to the fire and set them down on the dirt floor. She slowly, and gingerly, cut them free of the egg sac. She pulled the first child out and looked it over closely, then set it to the side as she freed the second child. She set them near to each other and began sniffing them. Two little girls. The woman of the woods licked them clean and cleared their mouths of debris with her own tongue. She was a wild savage with those babies, like a coyote cleaning its newborn pups, on the verge of eating them if they did not seem anything but perfect. She blew into their mouths, then pushed on their little chests one at a time until they coughed and gasped for air. One child cried while the other simply stared at her with knowing eyes. The woman of the woods picked up the crying baby cuddling it to her breast, then looked down at the other child, meeting its staring eyes with curiosity. “You broken?” She asked as she rocked the child in her arms, thinking what she might do with the child if it didn’t cry like it should. No time would be wasted on a broken child. Besides, she only really wanted the one who could speak with her mind. She could hear the child on the floor’s mind scream for her mother, making the woman of the woods wince. “Ya da one I hear tell from inside, ya not dead, ain’tcha?” The baby stared back at the woman of the woods. She could feel the child reaching out, into her mind. A blur of confusion and pain began crushing it from within. She screamed and fell to her knees dropping the other child to the floor and grabbing her head. Blood began to drip from her ears and nose. “Wait!” She yelled and fell forward on all fours gasping, feeling her life was in mortal danger, “Wait I say’s!” She screamed out in pain and her eyes rolled back in her head, unable to take anymore. It all ended suddenly. The child was in her mind and knew what she was going to bargain for her life with. The crying child that had fallen to the floor with a thud. Had she killed the woman of the woods, the two babies would surely die there alone, uncared for, worse, eaten by wild animals. She would have to let the woman of the woods live, for a time.
The woman of the woods gasped to catch her breath, “Ya da strong one,” She panted. She crawled to all fours looking at the floor, collecting herself before her opportunity to do so vanished. Her hair covered her arms all the way to the ground like a curtain. “Ya in the know now, ain’t cha?” She shook her head side to side pondering the question she asked the silent baby with eyes that pierced her mind and soul, “Iffin I raise ya, ya goin kill me first chance ya can survive on ya own. Spect dat not be too long at all.” She looked across the floor at the baby as the other child cried loud and long, “Ain’t no trainin’ ya to be.” The woman of the woods looked over at the crying baby, “But she ain’t in da know yet, I can feel it. ’Tween the two uh ya’s, I be dead now.” Pain again grabbed the woman again. She fell flat on her stomach with an ear-piercing scream, from the pain inflicted on her, again by the quiet, staring child. It left as quickly as it came, a reminder. The woman of the woods gasped for air, trying to take in as much as possible before another wave of pain assaulted her. After a minute of nothing, she struggled to speak, “Ya gots ta go,” she wheezed, “Or ya kill me now! Make ya choice!” After a few minutes of only the crying child on the floor, she climbed to her knees, then looked at the quiet baby who still stared back at her, motionless. “A day a come, she be in da know, just like you. Til den, I raise her, but ya gots ta go!” She looked over at the other child leaning back, propped up on her knees and out of breath. “I takes ya somewhere else to live out ya days, a good place, and ya forget ya eva saw me, or her! Iffin ya eva come for me, I kills her, I kills her dead as ya momma. So, keep ya mind in da know bout dat, all ya years!”