My house has already tripled in size since Nissa saved me that day ten years ago. She returned to her own woods the following day, after teaching me how to build my new home, but I saw her a few more times before she passed. Her home now houses hundreds of Woodland creatures and floral life. The magic that still resides there keeps them safe, happy, and healthy. It also acts as a home for roaming witches. For those who have not found their place, their Wood or their clearing, Nissa’s gives them safety for as long as they need it.
Nissa was all I dream to be. Grace like the wind. Safety and peace. Nature herself.
My house covers almost the entire clearing now. I’ve had to add a wing three times, always needing more rooms for my guests.
I like it, in a sick way. I find joy in the company. But I find grief in the reason why it is there.
In the past decade, the town I escaped from, the town of my father, has began losing children. Even the neighboring towns find themselves with several missing kids. They put up missing posters and signs. They send out search parties (that never make it within a mile of my clearing) and they bring in those fancy detectives from the bigger cities. They put up a valiant effort of looking for their children, of wanting them back.
They do not know there’s a witch in their woods, taking the kids in the dead of night.
They don’t see me luring the children to the edge and then bringing them back here, to my growing home.
They tell stories of monsters in The Wood and of a murderer who’s picking of their children.
I wonder. I wonder if they’ve noticed that every child they’ve lost, every kid that’s gone missing, is from a home where the parents do not care. I wonder if they know every child has scars and bruises just like mine. If every kid who now grows up in my clearing wakes up in the morning from nightmares. Nightmares filled with hot steel and foodless days and drunken punches.
I wonder if they realize only the abused children who pray of being saved, of being taken away in the night, are missing.
I twirl my fingers in the air, sliding across the wooden kitchen floor as the pot on the stove continues to boil. As my fingers move, another fire springs up in the fireplace behind me.
“Aaron!” I call, without turning away from the counter top. I plop ten chicken tenders down and start cutting. Tonight I’m cooking for eight, a record high for me. I still only have six bedrooms, and one of them is mine. The two youngest girls are sharing a room and the two young boys are sharing The other three get their own.
“Aaron!” I yell again.
“I’m here, I’m here,” a boy says behind me. “Calm down.”
I turn and smile at him. The boy, almost eighteen, is tall with dark brown hair that falls past his shoulders. When he got here, seven years ago, he was bald. His mother had cut it all off after he angered her. He still hasn’t let me cut it on grooming day. I don’t blame him and I don’t try to ask.
He’s thin but with dense muscles from his work in The Wood. He’s always been one to volunteer for the heavy lifting, saying he wants to earn his place – even though I always tell him he doesn’t have to earn anything.
“What do you need?” he asks, leaning against the dining room table.
“Do you mind cutting up the potatoes? Your brothers are tending to the garden and all the girls are bathing or cleaning their rooms.”
“Yeah,” he says, taking a seat at the head of the table. I wave my hand and a knife flies into his outstretched palm. He catches it with ease and starts chopping.
Aaron is the oldest and has been here the longest. He’s the only one who I would try that trick with. The others love my gifts, always asking for magic, but do not understand it like Aaron. None of the others would unflinchingly catch a soaring knife in their bare first. And I wouldn’t let them try.
I know I’ll be devastated in a month when he leaves me and never returns.
“I’ll remember you, when I turn eighteen,” Aaron had said once when I was telling him goodnight.
I’d pulled the covers up over his chest and laid my palm against his cheek. “You won’t. It is the way of our world. But I will never forget you, my sweet Aaron. My son.”
Today, he hums while he cuts the potatoes. It’s a song I taught him the night I brought him home. He had been ten when I stole him from his parents’ house. Every night for years he whispered in his room in the middle of the night for someone to save him. His father was always gone from the house, drunk and spending his time with young girls all over the town. His mother, angry at her situation, took out all of her frustration on him. He was scared to wake up in the morning and scared to go to sleep at night.
He hasn’t had a nightmare in five years.
“In The Wood with all my friends. The clouds hang high until the end. My mama sings me right to sleep. Now my soul can rest in peace,” Aaron sings under his breath. He suddenly stops and I hear the chair scrape against the floor. I place my own knife down and turn to see Aaron standing next to me, looking at the floor. The day he was finally taller than me I cried myself to sleep.
“Did you make up that song, mama?” he asks.
I shake my head. “No, Nissa taught it to me the day she told me of my heritage.”
“So, it’s a witches song?”
“It’s a song for broken children that need a promise.”
Aaron rubs his neck and sighs. “How do you know? That we need you?”
“I hear you.”
“Did I ever tell you thank you? For saving me?”
I smile, my eyes burning. I reach out and grab Aaron’s hand. “Yes, you did. Every night when you woke up crying and I brought you a calming potion. But I never tire of hearing it.”
He squeezes my hand. “How will I ever repay you?”
“When you leave here, live your life to the fullest. Be kind to all.”
Aaron nods and kisses my cheek before returning to the table to help me prepare dinner. Soon, his younger brother Lionel (who has only been here for a few months) joins us. He butters the rolls. Then Mariel and Michael (siblings who came the same night two years ago) come to set the table. By the time dinner is ready, all seven of my children are washed and sitting at the large wooden dining room table that my son John helped me build ten years ago. He was the second child I ever saved and when he left me, never to return or remember my name and face, I cried for two weeks. Mary, his sister and the first child I saved, had to console me. Once, a year after John left, I snuck into the world to find him. He was working in a bank three towns over. He had a wife already and seemed happy. Watching him through the window of his small house, make a meal I taught him but that he would always tell his guests “I don’t know where I got the recipe, it’s just always been in my head,” my heard swelled. I sat outside his house for hours, until he went to bed and I knew I could no longer be in the city.
“Mama, I met a squirrel today!” Mariel tells me as she shovels beans onto her plate. “Abigail and I got to pet it.”
“Is that so?” I say, turning to Abigail. She’s the youngest in our midst, though she hasn’t been here the shortest. I saved her three years ago when she was only two years old. She will be with me for a very long time. “Abi, did you like the squirrel?”
She nods quickly. Her mouth is stuffed full of potatoes. “He licked my finger!” she says.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Abigail,” I say, though laughing.
“Sorry,” she says, still speaking around the potatoes.
“The carrots are almost ready to be picked,” Lionel tells me. “Michael ate one!”
I frown and turn to Michael, who knows better than to eat food from the garden without asking me. Many of them have magical properties that are not to be digested without being mixed in a certain potion.
Michael throws a potato cube at Lionel for telling on him and I have to scold them both before an entire riot breaks out. After dinner, Mariel and Josey help me clean up the kitchen. Michael and Lionel take care of the animals outside, such as the chickens and horses and dogs, and Aaron helps the younger girls, Abigail and Theodosia, to get ready for bed. He helps with their baths and brushing their teeth and he reads them a story before tucking them in. I’ll go in later, but Abigail and Aaron have a close bond and he almost always does the nightly routine with the youngest girls.
I never wanted a family growing up. I hated my own family too much to recreate it. I thought every child would suffer and every parent would hurt and abuse. But the family I’ve created, the one that continuously changes, is the exact opposite of all my fears. It’s perfect in every way.
Until my children turn 18 and leave me forever.