Mr. Churchmouse was a practical man, and as such, he most certainly did not believe in fairy tales. He had heard rumors as of late that a witch had moved into the wood nearby, but this was all ludicrous, and such nonsense was not to be taken seriously. And even if said gossip did contain truth, what threat could a witch have on him? He was, of course, an accountant!
Mr. Churchmouse’s wife, however, Mrs. Churchmouse (she had not wished to take on his name when they had married—as it had been a source of teasing for Mr. Churchmouse as a child, and had thus turned him into a rather loud, obnoxious man—but being a woman born to a lowly family, she had little choice but to obey her father’s wishes and marry into the shrewd name of Churchmouse) was concerned. She and her husband lived in town, where she could hardly sleep past the early morning hours due to chirping sparrows and the click-clacking of the horses’ hooves upon the cobblestones, but her father’s home was in the wood. He was a carpenter, and not a very good one at that, and was much too poor to consider moving into the safety of the village.
She visited him often, as he was lonely, and so was she. But she always returned to her husband’s home before he arrived in the evening from the tax office and ensured a wondrous supper was prepared, as was expected.
On this particular autumn day, Mr. Churchmouse brought with him home a lily. Mrs. Churchmouse had never seen a lily of such beauty before. The petals were a deep, royal blue—as she imagined the sea might look, although she had never seen the sea, so perhaps it was more like sapphires (not that she had ever seen a sapphire either)—and the stamen white with gold flecks. She awed over the flower a good long moment, then placed it in a glass vase to serve as the centerpiece for the dining table, so she might awe over it some more.
“I found it in the wood at the foot of a fallen trunk. Of course it reminded me of my beautiful wife.” Mr. Churchmouse was not an affectionate man, and so Mrs. Churchmouse beamed at the gift. Perhaps, she thought, he had seen her unhappiness and sought to remedy it.
But her joy receded as she remembered the town gossip. “You went into the wood?”
“Aye,” he said as he scooped Mrs. Churchmouse’s boeuf bourguignon supper onto his plate and pushed a hankie into the collar of his shirt. “Don’t tell me you’re worried of a little witch story. Flying on broomsticks, cooking newts into stews, using birds for spies. No such things! And even if there was, no witch will ever step foot in this house. Just make sure you don’t be leaving during the day, now, you hear? At least not beyond market square.”
“Tomorrow I told father I’d bring him leftover stew. I made extra for him—“
“Eh?” Mr. Churchmouse scowled. “You aren’t to be going into the wood!”
“But I thought the witch was just a hoax—“
“Well, it is!”
Mrs. Churchmouse stared as her husband dug into his supper. “But…then—“
“Don’t go into the wood!” Juice dripped down his chin.
Mrs. Churchmouse sat at the table, though her own appetite was now lost, and admired her new flower before it was destined to wither.
Next morning, it was not the click-clacking of the horses’ hooves that woke her, but a strange tinkling from downstairs in the dining room. When she first rubbed her eyes, she thought it must have been Mr. Churchmouse getting ready for work, but the sound of her husband’s voice suddenly thundering outside the window confirmed otherwise.
“Good morning, Mr. Porter!” he boomed as he crossed the street toward the center of town, and Mr. Porter replied, though in a proper, hushed voice.
Goodness, Mrs. Churchmouse thought, embarrassed to be associated with such a loud man. But she quickly eschewed the thought away, guilty she had thought poorly of her husband, and tried to return to sleep.
But when the tinkling sound continued, she rose and, still in her nightgown, tiptoed through the house toward the stairs. She tried to put together in her head what on earth the source of the odd sound might be, but it was as though someone was clinking a wine glass with a teaspoon. Surely there was no dinner party occurring in her own dining room.
As she neared the kitchen, the tinkling was added to by what sounded to be the glass being dragged across the wooden table, back and forth, back and forth, sometimes just a short distance, and other times it seemed to pull across the entire table length, just to turn and return back.
Mrs. Churchmouse stood at the entrance to the dining room, afraid to turn the corner through the door and see what was causing such a noise. But she didn’t need to, for suddenly there came the sharp shattering of glass, causing Mrs. Churchmouse to yelp aloud.
As she stood with her hands over her mouth, all was silent for a long moment, until a soft whimpering arose from within the room, which turned then into the resounding cries of an infant.
Instinct took over, and Mrs. Churchmouse hurried into the dining room to see there, lying in the center of the table with the shattered glass from the lily’s vase scattered all across it, a tiny baby boy.
She rushed to the crying child’s side, but, confused and uncertain, she simply stared at the infant. Mrs. Churchmouse had never been a mother, nor had she ever had siblings, and in this moment, she was more concerned with how she was to properly pick up the newborn than with how the child came to be on her dining room table in the first place. But the baby was wailing, and she needed to do something.
She grabbed the child from the table, although rather awkwardly, and careful to cradle its head, brought it to her chest.
“Shh, shh, shh…” she hushed, and she brought one finger to the baby’s mouth. The child latched on to her finger, perhaps thinking it was a meal, and began to suckle.
“Oh, you’re hungry,” she said, looking all about her for something she could do about such a predicament. Mrs. Churchmouse carried the child into the living room, where she wrapped him in a blanket and placed him between the cushions of the couch, so he might not roll off.
She returned to the dining room, where she took a towel to sweep the shattered glass from the table. It was then that she realized the blue lily flower was nowhere to be found.
Mrs. Churchmouse solved her current dilemma by fetching a turkey baster and a cup of goat’s milk which she warmed over the stove. She held the baby against her torso, and, as she had hoped, the baby took the baster into its mouth, and she ever so slowly squeezed milk out from it.
Soon the baby fell fast asleep in her arms, its mouth forming a little “o,” and as Mrs. Churchmouse hummed a soft tune, she smiled.
With the house silent and the reality of her situation dawning on her, Mrs. Churchmouse’s smile faded.
Mrs. Churchmouse placed the sleeping baby between the couch cushions and went upstairs to dress. When she slipped into her chemise, she skittered back down the stairs, popping her head round the corner of the stairwell to see the baby still asleep upon the couch. When she tied on her corset, she peeked downstairs again, but, as before, the baby remained. When she pulled on her pear-colored dress, tied her apron, secured her bonnet, and donned her purse over her arm, she flitted down the stairs, because this time, certainly the boy would be gone and whatever strangeness had occurred this morning she would see was nothing but a dream.
But, alas, the baby laid upon the cushions, though this time, his cobalt eyes were wide, and he watched Mrs. Churchmouse with astute intrigue.
She sighed and took the boy against her chest, ensuring the blanket was wrapped tight around all but his face, and headed out into town.
“Oi, oi!” called the fisherman, who comes to market square once a week with his catch. “Mrs. Churchmouse, lovely to see you! I—“ he paused upon seeing the bundle she was trying to conceal. “Why—Mr. Churchmouse didn’t mention you had been expecting!”
“Oh no,” Mrs. Churchmouse stuttered, trying to turn away from the fisherman, hide herself amongst the bustling crowd of market square shoppers, and be unheard beneath the crying caws of the sparrows overhead. “He’s my—uh—my sister’s.”
“Well, what a fine boy!”
At this point, the fisherman had drawn attention to her.
“Your sister?” A bearded man with a top hat stuck his face much too closely to Mrs. Churchmouse and peered down upon the baby boy tucked against her breast, who began to whimper upon the sight. “Your husband said you were an only daughter. I know—I asked.”
Mrs. Churchmouse pulled away from the man, who curled his lip as though he were offended.
“I don’t—what I meant to say was—“ She bumped into another man behind her.
“How is he, anyway?” the man asked. “I hear the taxes are giving them down at the office quite the busywork these days.”
“He’s quite well, thank you.” Mrs. Churchmouse turned to continue making her way through market square and out to the edge of town, but yet another blocked her path.
“I didn’t know Mr. Churchmouse had a little one!” he reached his hand in and tickled the baby’s stomach. “It’s about time you gave him a child. How is he feeding? Latching on well?“
Mrs. Churchmouse flinched as the man’s hand brushed against hers. “He’s just fine. Have a good day, now.”
She turned to leave, but the man reached to take the baby from Mrs. Churchmouse’s arms.
Mrs. Churchmouse yanked the baby away. “Please don’t touch him!”
She was just as shocked by her own voice as were those who surrounded her.
But she did not wait to hear their response, instead pushing through the crowd of market square and heading for the village gate, though she felt the stares of the market-goers digging into her back as she did. She hoped they didn’t mention the incident to Mr. Churchmouse, as she did not want to cause her husband any embarrassment.
When she stepped off the cobblestone paths of town, she did not slow. She continued down the dirt path toward her father’s house in the wood, but when she saw a trio of lumbermen coming down the trail, she veered off into the weedy overgrowth of the trees, leaving behind the safety of the road and making for the wood.
The boy jostled against her chest, but she held him tight. Even as the thistles scratched her through her stockings and the burrs stuck to her dress, she kept her quick pace.
She tumbled forward, instinct first telling her to stretch out her arms to catch her fall, but instead she took the blunt of the spill on herself as she pulled the infant tight into her breast, protecting him best she could.
He began to cry soft, uttering cries, and so Mrs. Churchmouse picked herself from the ground and sat upon the dirt with no mind for her dress. She cradled the boy, bouncing him gently, and singing a low tune she thought her mother perhaps once sang to her. He whimpered a few moments before again resorting to quietly staring up at her.
She touched her finger to his nose. “You’re a silly one, aren’t you?”
The boy pulled the corners of his mouth into a tiny grin and muttered an utterance as close to a laugh as a newborn could muster.
Mrs. Churchmouse smiled wide—the widest she had smiled in a rather long time.
There was a sparrow that sat upon a fallen tree trunk, watching Mrs. Churchmouse and the infant. A sharp chirp from its throat caught Mrs. Churchmouse’s attention, and even the baby turned his gaze upon the bird.
“Well, hello,” she said.
The bird cocked its head to and fro, then took to the air, soaring through the trees.
Mrs. Churchmouse followed with her eyes its path and saw the wood siding of her father’s house peeking through the trees.
“Come, then,” she said to the boy as she again pressed him to her chest and got to her feet, making the final steps to her father’s home.
“And you found this baby…on your table?”
“I told you, father.” Mrs. Churchmouse stirred a pot of the leftover stew upon the stove. “He just…appeared.”
“Now, love…” He placed his wrinkled hand over hers, pulling it away from the ladle. It was a comfort to feel him close, yet she could not help but feel frustrated over his seeming lack of belief in her tale—no matter how unbelievable it sounded.
She glanced to the baby, who lay upon the bed of the single-room house, cooing to himself. She smiled.
“If there is anything you need to tell me…” her father continued, but his insinuation turned her smile into a scowl.
“I’m telling the truth!” She pulled away from him, leaving the stew to sit upon the edge of the bed. The baby took her hand and suckled on her fingers.
“Then, I suppose you need to take him to the orphanage. Say you found him abandoned.”
“But I’m his mother!”
“You are his mother? And what will the townsfolk say, when you are the mother of a child that does not belong to your husband? He will not take a baby that is not his—I know him well enough to know this, as do you. He is too proud.”
She did not reply.
“You will embarrass him.”
Mrs. Churchmouse stared as the boy gnawed his toothless gums on her fingers, gazing up at her as though he, too, believed she was his mother.
And she wanted to be.
Her father hobbled to the bed and sat himself down beside her. “I want you to be happy, but this—“ he motioned to the baby, “—it cannot be.”
For a long while, she sat in silence, pushing back tears and looking only upon the baby’s little face and his big, blue eyes.
Finally, she nodded.
“Okay?” her father said, taking her hand again in his.
“Okay. I’ll take him to the orphanage.”
Mrs. Churchmouse stood, taking the boy away and into her arms.
“You’re doing the right thing.”
She nodded, kissed her father goodbye, and exited the house back into the woods.
It was afternoon now. If she wanted to have supper prepared for Mr. Churchmouse by the time he returned from the tax office, she needed to return to market square for shopping and begin cooking soon. And that meant taking the baby to the orphanage first.
But Mrs. Churchmouse stood outside her father’s house, and she could not bring her feet to move. The birds chirped in the branches above her, and the insects brr-ed in the dirt beneath her, and the longer she stood, the more she felt that if she just stood long enough, the weeds might come to entangle her ankles and the skin of her feet might melt into the soil. Perhaps she could become a tree, and that might be nice.
But no, she had to return to town.
So she took a step forward. And then another. And then another.
Until a sparrow swooped down in front of her face, causing her to stop.
She turned her head and watched as the sparrow landed upon the clothesline. It cocked its head to and fro, then took to the air, flying a circle overhead before coming to sit upon the line again.
She looked to the boy in her arms, who wriggled in his blanket, cooing gently.
She looked to the sparrow, who watched her with an intensity in its eyes she found peculiar for a bird.
And when the sparrow flapped its wings and flew off into the trees, Mrs. Churchmouse did not continue her walk to town.
No. Mrs. Churchmouse followed the bird past the clothesline, past her father’s house, and into the deep wood.
The sparrow hopped from tree to tree, always waiting to move forward until Mrs. Churchmouse had her eye on it. Strange, as though it were waiting for her. What was stranger more was that Mrs. Churchmouse was chasing a bird into the wood in the first place.
Was this not how the stories went? The stories of witches in woods and how they lured the naïve from the safety of town?
When Mrs. Churchmouse reached the witch’s house, she did not first recognize it as such. There was no cottage made of black brick with smoke pluming from the chimney. There were no thousand eyes set into the trunks of the trees or spiders that spun webs so thick even wolves would be caught. There was only a mound of dirt, not much taller than Mrs. Churchmouse was, with sticks coated in moss sticking from the roof and garden snails inching upon the sticks, as though seeing who could get the highest. A strawberry patch blooming with red fruit covered the back end of the mound, though Mrs. Churchmouse thought it was much too late in the season for strawberries, and a large boulder with a deep slot in the top sat at the front.
The sparrow perched atop a stick on the roof, and only then did Mrs. Churchmouse see the rest of the flock of sparrows all nested amongst the moss. They chirped in greeting—or warning. Mrs. Churchmouse wasn’t sure which.
“If you’ve got a request, you can leave it in the mail shoot.”
Mrs. Churchmouse leapt backwards, her free hand flying to her chest. The muffled voice seemed to come from inside the mound, yet she saw no window or door.
She squinted, searching the mound for anything that made sense. But, of course, what did she expect? Nothing made sense anymore.
“In the boulder,” the voice said again.
Mrs. Churchmouse opened her mouth to speak, but first, only an awkward croak came out. She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry?”
“In the boulder is the mail slot. You can put your request in there.”
“Well, I—“ Mrs. Churchmouse positioned the baby against her shoulder so she might free both hands to search her purse, but the boy began to whimper. “I haven’t got any paper.”
“What’s that crying?” the voice asked.
“All that whimpering. Is that you? Or you got some sort of dog?”
“Um, no, ma’am. It’s just the baby.”
“You haven’t got a baby.”
Mrs. Churchmouse cradled the infant, bouncing him in her arms to ease his cries. “I do. He’s right here with me.”
“He’s not your baby.”
Mrs. Churchmouse frowned. “Well, how would you know if he were my baby or not?”
“Well, is he?”
“…Well,” The baby’s whimpers grew into wails as Mrs. Churchmouse bounced him against her breast, trying to hush him.
But as the baby’s cries grew, so did Mrs. Churchmouse’s frustration peak.
“Well, what would you know about it, anyway?” she herself cried. “Who are you to decide what makes a mother and what doesn’t? Just because I cannot form a child of my own?”
The dirt of the mound shook as a door made of soil and root opened. From inside the mound, warm candlelight glowed, and it illuminated the shape of a tall woman. Thick burgundy hair fell down her chest and framed her long freckled face and hooked nose. She wore a white, oversized button-down blouse that tucked into her dark sable-brown pants, and she was barefoot. The woman had all the features of the witches Mrs. Churchmouse had heard of in stories, and yet, the features were not grotesque as she had imagined. Rather, the woman was so uniquely beautiful that Mrs. Churchmouse’s heart dropped into her stomach.
“What’s your name?” the witch asked.
“Mrs. Churchmouse,” she stuttered, avoiding eye contact in her sheepish embarrassment over losing her temper.
“No, I mean what’s your name?”
When Mrs. Churchmouse’s bewildered expression did not give an answer, the witch reiterated. “Churchmouse is your husband’s name. What is your name?”
“Oh. It’s Gwendolyn.”
The witch grinned.
Her eyes dropped to the baby in Gwendolyn’s arms, and she gazed upon him with as much love as Gwendolyn had. “Thank you for bringing him back.”
“What?” Gwendolyn looked between the boy and the witch, only now seeing the same hooked nose, the same round cheeks, the same almond eyes between the two. Only now did she realize the baby’s cries had stopped and his eyes now stared at his mother.
As the witch stepped to her side and scooped the boy from Gwendolyn’s arms into her own, the pang of a dagger jabbed Gwendolyn’s chest where the boy had before sat. She watched as the witch bounced the child up and down, the infant cooing giggles as she did.
Gwendolyn swallowed the frog in her throat. “He looks like you, you know.”
“Do you think so?” the witch said as she beamed upon the baby. “I was about to say the same of you.”
“How could he look like me? I’m not his mother.”
“You picked the lily, didn’t you?”
“No, my husband did.”
“Doesn’t matter. The flower belonged to you.” She placed her hand upon the smiling boy’s face, running her finger down the length of his nose until he grabbed it with his little mouth and began to suckle. ”I was waiting a long time for him to be born.”
“I don’t understand.”
The witch moved her gaze to Gwendolyn. “Why don’t you join us for supper?”
“Oh, no,” she replied. “I’ve got to get back. My husband will be waiting for his own supper.”
The witch nodded and turned with the baby back into her house, but just as they were about to disappear forever, which felt to Gwendolyn like the most painful thing that could possibly happen, she cried out.
The witch looked back.
“Have you cast a spell on me?”
“Have you cast a spell on me?”
The witch chuckled. “No.”
Gwendolyn stood for a long moment then, awaiting something or someone to tell her what to do. But nothing did. All she had was herself and her own heart.
“Did you want to come in?” The witch held the door open wide.
Gwendolyn nodded. “Perhaps just for supper.”
Alexander Ren lives with a pen in hand and frequently gets into trouble for daydreaming stories of witches, wolves, and snow-covered deserts when they ought to be “living in the real world.” That, however, sounds rather boring, wouldn’t you think? Ren has published multiple short stories and is currently working on a debut novel, as well as writing for indie video games and a couple thousand more short stories.
Twitter: @archosaur or @alexandarcy.