The Woods, February 1532
Have I then become your enemy, by telling you the truth? ... Gal 4:16
Anna woke up shivering in a strange hut. She was lying on a pile of smelly animal skins in a smoky room, which didn’t feel warm at all.
“So you decided to wake up, you lazy girl, when it’s high noon?” The ancient toothless crone’s voice crackled, as if it hadn’t been unlocked in many years. Her wrinkled face and sour breath came too close for comfort. “If you think to eat of my small provisions, you hustle outside and help your husband chop wood.”
“Wha…what?” Anna snapped out of her lethargy and staggered to her feet. “Who are you and where am I?” At first, her limbs were so stiff they refused to straighten. Her stomach rumbled and her mouth seemed dry as ashes. She swayed and caught at a nearby chair to stay upright, panicking when memory returned. The children! She had to get to the children!
The old woman chortled in glee. “I’m Cornelia the witch, don’t you know, and I can turn myself into a wolf. Or grow two heads at will. And that’s not all. I make all the crops fail and curse the cattle so they die. And I go around curdling all the cream so it won’t turn into butter.” She sounded bitter. “They tried to drown me but I swam away, proving that I am truly a witch. Don’t stare at me! Go outside and chop wood!”
Anna obeyed. She found Jan outside leaning on the axe, his eyes glazed and vacant. He hadn’t managed to chop any wood. Anna took the axe, helping him to sit on a fallen log to rest.
“Jan! Where are we? Do you know?” He shook his head vaguely. “You should not be out here in the cold. Here’s my cloak.” She wrapped it around his shoulders, concern wrinkling her brow. Jan nearly shook himself off the log. How dared that hag send the poor man out here?
Anna lifted the axe and glared at the log in front of her. She swung the axe awkwardly and no more than a small chip flew off. The witch must be inside cursing the axe, or perhaps the log. Another swing and she hit a different spot; another chip went flying. Outraged by her failure, she gathered all her strength and let fly again, pretending the log was the witch. A long, narrow strip of bark split off the log. After many more tries, her arms ached, and she had made very little progress.
She itched to get away from this place and back to the children. Too much time had already passed, and the longer she waited, the harder it might be to get them back. But Jan was in no condition to tramp through the snowy woods. Could she abandon him? It would be no worse than abandoning the children. And besides, it had been Jan’s idea to run to the bush, so he should be the one to suffer the consequences.
She heard the door of the hut creak and whipped around. The witch was coming out, her face dark. “Have you never chopped wood before?” she asked, snatching the axe.
“No. No, I haven’t.”
The axe slashed downwards, hitting the log with a clean stroke, and the wood split along its length. Anna stood there staring, and the axe kept swinging. It looked so easy that she became more and more convinced that Cornelia was an actual witch who had cursed her own attempts. In a matter of minutes, the wiry, old woman had chopped a sizable pile of wood.
Finally, Cornelia stuck the axe into an un-chopped log, and swung around to face Anna, barely out of breath. “Now you know. Next time I expect you to do it.” Next time? There would be a next time? Anna’s plans had been to get out of there before nightfall.
“Have you ever carried wood?”
“Of course.” Anna bent to pick up an armful. The old woman took Jan’s arm and alternated between pushing and pulling him back to the hut. Anna staggered along behind them, burdened with as much firewood as she could carry. The weathered gray hut appeared to be nearly collapsing on the side of a low hill; its poorly thatched roof could hardly be tight anymore, and the posts holding a tumbledown porch would surely fall over soon. Boards were nailed in a haphazard fashion onto the sides, in a vain attempt to close gaps in the poorly constructed shack. No wonder it wasn’t warm inside.
Snow was beginning to fall, and the heavy clouds on the horizon foretold of much more snow to come. The cedar trees, already burdened with cloaks of snow, huddled around the little dwelling, as if protecting the miserable hut from the disdain it deserved.
Anna stepped onto the rickety porch and passed through the sagging door, then deposited her load beside the smoking fireplace. She coughed. There must be a bird’s nest in the chimney. Jan was lying on a lumpy cot, the witch bending over him with a vial of some dark liquid.
“Stop it! What are you giving him?” Anna ran over and grabbed the woman’s arm. How bony and thin it was! The woman turned around and glared at Anna with beady black eyes above a hawk nose. Her lower lip trembled, revealing toothless gums. Then she laughed her haunting, cackly laugh.
“What do you think? I was about to turn him into something good to eat, and I hate when people interrupt my spells.” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you object?” The woman was insane, no doubt about it.
“Can’t you just go out and hunt or something?”
“Do I look like a hunter?” she snarled. “Go and hunt yourself, you lazy thing.” Anna took a step backwards at the venomous look on her face. “I will give you one hour to catch something. After that, we eat him.”
“Never!” A thought struck her. “He is a man of God, and if you harm him, God will certainly punish you severely.”
Cornelia laughed bitterly. “A man of God? I’ve seen enough men of God to last me forever. If this one is like the rest, I should turn myself into a wolf and devour him.”
“No, no you don’t understand. This is a good man. He is ill, yes. Help me make him well, then you will see how good he is. He does not deserve to die.”
“That’s what I was doing when you attacked me; I was trying to make him well.” She poured some dark liquid down his throat, and Anna stood by anxiously, her fists clenched and her heart thudding. She didn’t exactly believe in witch powers, but if this lady managed to heal Jan, she might change her mind. If Cornelia could cure him fast, they could make their escape that day. If not, Jan might find himself left behind. Anna didn’t wish him any harm, but the children came first.
Anna did feel sorry for what happened to Cornelia. If the Court hunted Anabaptists like wild beasts, not taking the time to find out whether they were good or evil, justice seemed even more unlikely while they figured out who was a witch. Maybe this woman felt secure here, hidden in the trees in her rundown shack. But the loneliness! It would drive anyone insane, as Anna could attest.
A few minutes later, Jan sat up and his green-eyed gaze swept the hut. “What happened? I feel so much better!” Anna unclenched her fists, and her shoulders lowered to their usual position. He was indeed looking brighter. Whatever concoction Cornelia fed him had worked like a charm.
“Old Cornelia, the witch, made you well,” the old woman said, “I’ve got my potions, you know, to use for good or ill!”
Anna shivered. She didn’t want to know what this strange woman might do for ill, but somehow, she had managed to save their lives. “How did you find us, Cornelia?” Anna asked.
“My magic powers told me there were two foolish mortals in distress close by, and so, hoping for a good meal, I took my sled out and found you two sleeping on Samion’s grave.”
Anna stepped closer to Jan, while her mind spun, trying to find the nerve and the heart to leave the place immediately. Witch or not, the woman was crazy. But she didn’t know the way back, for one thing, and Jan was too weak to help, for another. But the children, she agonized. Where were they now?
“Could I borrow your sled for my brother Jan to ride on, and go back to the city?” Anna asked.
Cornelia frowned darkly, her dark eyes snapping. “So, is my abode too humble for you?” Her bottom lip worked over the blackened and broken stumps where teeth had been.
“No, no, not at all. It’s just that I have to get back to the children.”
“Children, eh?” She tugged at the hairs on her sagging chin. “And what do you mean, your brother Jan? Isn’t he your husband?” She looked doubtfully from one to the other.
Anna glanced at Jan, embarrassed beyond words. The twinkle in his green eyes nearly undid her composure. He thought it was funny?
“Uh…no. We got lost when we…” She stopped, aghast that she had been ready to tell a bare-faced lie. What punishment would God send for that?
“I saw the hoofprints. Who are you running from?” The keen old eyes bored into hers, until Anna was forced to tell the truth.
“It was the Court officers.”
“What have you done?” Cornelia narrowed her eyes. “I have poison here, and I’ll use it on you if you don’t tell me the truth.” She took a step towards a rundown shelf on the wall.
“We are messengers from God, and we have come to spread the Gospel throughout the land.” Jan said. “God sent us to you.”
“Hmph! I would say God sent me to you. Otherwise, you would be two frozen chunks of ice by now,” Cornelia said.
Anna shivered. This was true enough. “We are very grateful to you, Cornelia. How did you manage? And who was Samion?”
“I told you, with my sled. I went out to find wood, and there you were. I thought you had frozen to death on my old dog’s grave.”
It had been close, Anna realized. But who knew there was anyone living in these woods?
“I hope you two aren’t too hungry, because I don’t have much to offer you,” Cornelia announced, as she set out a small, hard loaf of dark bread and some wine.
Anna stared. She felt too guilty to eat any of Cornelia’s meagre rations, though her stomach rumbled. Jan claimed he wasn’t feeling well enough to eat.
“Nonsense. I’ll cut this loaf in three. Everyone will eat.” She handed them both a share as they sat on the bed, then began sucking on her own crust. Anna chewed slowly, and made the bread last as long as possible. The coarse bread tasted better than it looked, though it was grainy and chewy. The wine warmed her insides, and it tasted surprisingly mellow.
“Now I must go back and look for the children.” Anna got up from the bed, and reached for her cloak, which smelled of wood smoke and cedar.
“Have you looked out the window?” Jan asked.
Anna shook her head as she glanced outside. “It wasn’t bad when we came indoors. I will be fine.”
“Anna, tell me,” Jan said. “What will you do with the children if you find them? You can’t go back to the house, or you will be caught.”
“You don’t know that.” What right did he have, telling her what to do? It was he and Willem that got her into this plight, and Jan was in no condition to help her out of it, Willem even less. She was the only one to do it.
“Please, Anna. Don’t go out there by yourself. You will get lost.” Jan got up from the bed and unsteadily walked over to face her, placing his hand on her arm. She shook it off.
“No, I won’t. Besides, you can pray to God to keep me safe. I’m sure He will hear you better than He hears me.”
“Anna! God hears you too! That doesn’t mean you should be foolish enough to head back into danger.”
Tears blinded Anna’s eyes. “They are not your children, and I know you don’t care about them like I do. I am the one that promised Adriaen to keep them safe, but because of you…” She stopped short of accusing him, but he still looked wounded. He clenched his hands at his sides, and looked at the rush-strewn earthen floor.
“Forgive me, Anna. We should never have come to your house.” He looked up, his green eyes dark with pain. “What can I do to help?”
“Nothing! Just let me go find my children.” Anna fastened her hooded cloak and wound the scarf around her face. Jan watched her leave, looking as if she had thrust a dagger through his heart. She pulled the door shut after herself and tramped through the drifts of snow in the direction she hoped Amsterdam lay.
In a few minutes, she was surrounded by a world of falling snow, and it became impossible to tell in which direction she was heading. The wind flung freezing white crystals against the uncovered section of her face, and snow sifted into her boots. Bewildered, she stopped and held out her arms.
“Stop the snow!” she howled into the wind, frustrated and angry at this blinding white curtain. Didn’t God want her to find the children? He had sent them into her care, and now she needed some help to do so. Despite Jan’s assurances, she didn’t quite trust the authorities to take care of her charges.
Through the thick white cloud, someone called her name. “Aaannnaaa! Come back!”
“Noooo!” She hollered back, stamping her foot. Soon, it must stop snowing. She muttered to herself, angry at God and the saints, and most of all at Jan and Willem for getting her into this predicament. And now Jan had the nerve to try and prevent her from getting back to rescue the children. Anna hoped Jan was praying hard, because she was too upset to do so. In the meantime, she would just start walking straight ahead until she emerged from this godforsaken forest. She ignored the shouts, ever fainter, calling her back to the miserable hut.
Hours seemed to go by, and every time the storm let up, Anna could see nothing but more trees. She constantly bumped her head and scratched her face on low-hanging branches. Her leather boots were stuffed with snow, and the hem of her skirt was frozen all the way around and rigid with ice. Snow crusted her eyelashes and her eyebrows, and fluid froze in her nostrils.
When daylight grew dim, the storm had not let up. There was nothing to see but swirling snow and endless trees. And there was nothing to do but admit defeat. It was cold, so very cold. Her teeth chattered, and her hands and feet were numb. She had been stubborn, and she had not listened to honest advice, and now she must freeze out here in the woods. ’Oh God, I’m so sorry. Forgive me, I have sinned. I have not trusted you. I have been self-willed and impatient. Help me, oh God.’
Cornelia and Jan had no way of knowing where she was, and besides, they probably figured she had found her way back to Amsterdam. But Anna wouldn’t give up without a fight. “Heeelllp!” she shouted. “Heeelp!” She kept walking, lifting one heavy foot out of the knee-high snow, then the other. She was tired, so very tired. Her voice grew weaker. The wind snatched her wavering cries out of her mouth and flung them far away. If anyone answered, the thick white flakes muffled the sound.
When she hit something solid, she sank to the ground. Another tree, she thought in resignation. She lifted a weary arm to hold onto the trunk. She must get back up. Instead of the roundness and rough bark of a tree, she felt, unbelievably, a wall. A building of some kind.
Gathering fresh energy, she got back onto her feet, and felt her way along the wall. What was it? A barn? A robber’s hideout? An empty shack in the woods? She turned a corner and continued. Somewhere, there had to be a door or an opening. There! There it was! She felt for the latch, thumping and moving her hands over the rough boards. The door gave way, and she fell inside the building. Rough hands grabbed her arms, pulling her inside. Anna used her last shred of strength to scream like a demon from the deeps.