The Witch Girl

by Lyn C. A. Gardner

The witch girl crouches beside her cauldron,
chain dragging from an iron collar like a dog's.
They don't trust her yet with the bones they grind
to make their soup. They caught her gnawing, snarfing down
her own leg in the woods, starvation slimming her throat
so the bones of her ankle caught in her craw,
choking they mistook for a witch-chick's first attempt to cackle.

Now she stirs broth, the base for spells:
plastic filters from a forest fire; shards of shattered star;
Sweet William three days dead, the flesh
still succulent on his bones. He'd been rotting,
dropping pieces of himself, a dirty white trail of breadcrumbs
that the vultures and hyenas loved. The witch girl followed,
collecting him in her basket, popping his leavings in her mouth
till flesh melted from bones, sweet with his charm that won every heart.
Mother, our caravan queen, always loved him best —
she mixes his memento mori in every spell, small bones to remind us
of him with their delicate crunch, perhaps with a strand woven in
of those fine golden locks she doles out one by one,
keeping the rest to build the girl a husband when the time comes.

Right now the girl is barely more than feral —
fruitless to comb that storm-cloud hair or trim it with bones,
though tinsel might be nice, if any shards of broken star are left.
She's got to look frightful in case the town creeps by for thrills.
But the wild gleam in her swamp-dark eyes may be enough.
She pins you with that stare, animal malice, human deceit,
the scorn of a dirty trick, the first prick of capture
before the killing jar.

When the witches roll into town, setting up wagons under the trees,
guarded by a fence of crossed broomsticks — beware.
The witch girl lures you in, skinny child needing solace,
her gaunt, dirty cheeks aiding her pleas for staples:
An eye, perhaps? You have a spare. That great big nose? Whittle off
a few ounces. Your brain? You won't miss it. Fingers make
delicious finger-food. She's so cute, ragamuffin waif — you pity her, forget
she's already a witch at heart. Fire glares orange through the moon-cut door
behind which her sisters beckon, luring unwary rest-stop seekers
to add their exotic, well-traveled flavors to the soup.
If you're lucky, the witch girl will honor you by stretching your tattoos
from two crossed poles to catch the wind, Halloween banner
under the moon, strong scent to distract the townies till she bangs her pot
with that menacing glare: You next. They scamper.

She's more than wolf-bred — more like the slough of self-deceit,
mother-hatred, self-loathing, repudiated love, the bitter strength
of a heart turned sour, a putrid and terrifying drink.
The witch girl smites you with that killing stare,
the frank malice of her scowl, the dark night where her soul lurks.
Her tangled hair and dirt-smeared face, her bloody rags
where limbs poke through like bones, might incite sympathy
if she didn't hate you all so fiercely. It's intriguing, the way she stirs
that pot of dashed hopes with her ladle of bone. Is that your leg?

After all, you haven't come home. You cursed me last night,
before you stormed out without your keys: you'd go to the caravan
to seek your fortune — find yourself. You wouldn't wait for an umbrella,
just ran out into the sleet, yelling that it wasn't me, and what was there
to leave behind? Your defiant look so much like hers — those black eyes
full of hate. That heart-bloody sleeve. That patch of bright, gnawed bone
where you chewed yourself free of this trap, to hobble into the killing wood,
leaving me here, like the witch girl, to simmer and stew
the poison that teaches me to be glad you're gone.

Currently catalog librarian for a public library, Lyn C. A. Gardner also loved being editor for The Mariners' Museum and projectionist for AMC Theatres. She's presently reclaiming her house as art, turning closets into rooms and building a hallway TARDIS. Home wouldn't be complete without five cats, eight birds, a half-built harpsichord, and two friendly guitars. Lyn is also literary executor for her father, Delbert R. Gardner. Poems and stories by either or both have appeared in Goblin Fruit, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Sybil's Garage, The Leading Edge, Mythic Delirium, MindFlights, Star*Line, and SFPA's Rhysling Anthology (2006, 2008-2011), among others. Please learn more at their website.

When asked to name her favourite fruit, Lyn replied as follows: "Since childhood, when I raced to reach our tree before the birds, cherries have been my favorite fruit, conjuring all the laughter and possibilities of summers past and present. Though it doesn't come with fruit, my first poetry collection, Dreaming of Days in Astophel, is available now from Sam's Dot Publishing."

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