“What do we do now?” her brother asked. His sister turned away from the oven and began opening drawers in the tiny house, filling her pockets. When she didn’t answer right away, he added, “It smells so good in here.”
His sister served him a look as she put a silver spoon in her pocket.
“It does. You smell it too. I can’t help it. We’ve barely eaten all winter.”
“You can so help it. We’d ‘barely eaten all winter’ until the last two weeks. The witch gave us plenty.”
Her brother pulled his lips into his mouth and pushed his brows down over his eyes. “But I remember being hungry. I got used to being hungry. Hungry so long I think I’ll always be hungry.”
His sister puffed a small huff and took him by the wrist. “Then we need to leave this house. Let’s go wash up. We’re both covered in soot and syrup.” The witch had macerated, basted, or glazed everything she fed them in sweet syrup cooked down from the sap of certain trees throughout the forest. Children like sweets, she had said. Toward the end it had started to make his sister sick. The lye soap and water from the pump helped, and soon they were both as clean as could be expected.
They went outside, where this part of the deep wood was as unbreezed and chirpless as it had been when they first stumbled on the house. There was barely a clearing to accommodate it. Leaning forward from the doorway, even a child could very nearly touch the closest tree, and had any of the four winds dared to breach this territory, the pine branches would have scratched against the walls, windows, rooftop. But none did. Nor did orange dead needles litter the ground, which was vibrant with moss the color of market day lettuce and picturebook emeralds.
“I’m still hungry,” her brother said.
“Come,” she said. “Into the woods.”
“But it was bad there.”
“We didn’t know what bad was yet.”
She pulled him, dragged him really, through the close-packed trees, thin pine branches abrading their necks and arms. The path that had seemed to lead to the house was nowhere to be seen. Maybe there had never been a path. His sister pushed on, bringing her brother with her, until finally they felt the air again on their skin, cellar cool and mushroom damp. It smelled like the woods again, sweet with pine sap and bitter from faraway chimneys.
“Where are we going?” her brother asked. “We were safe there. And we could eat.”
“No,” his sister said. “We were not safe. We could not eat.” There was no path, but if they just picked a direction and stayed true to it, they would be out of the woods eventually. Although it was dark in the woods, it wasn’t night-dark, just gloomy with leaves. When night-dark came she would find the lode star, the mother star, and use it to keep their path true.
“We should go home,” her brother said. “They might miss us terribly. They might be sorry now. They might give us treats to make up for it.”
“No,” his sister said. She had to take several steps back because their hands had become entwined in a branch, and she was afraid of where he might go if she let go of him. They could no longer smell the cooked-meat smell of the witch’s house, but there were other dangers.
“We should go home,” her brother said. “If we say we’re sorry, maybe they’ll let us stay. If we ask really really nice. If we cry until they feel bad.”
“No,” his sister said. She had taken the silverware from the kitchen, as much as would fit in her pockets, and a pocket watch that might be gold and must at least be brass. No one would give two children a fair price for them, but even an unfair price would be a profit, if they could find a town.
“We should go home,” her brother said. “We should make them sorry. When they beg us for forgiveness, they’ll have to love us again.”
His sister didn’t say anything.
It had been a long time in the woods for them before they found the witch’s house. His sister wasn’t sure how long but she knew they were older than they had been when they lived with their parents. Where their clothes had been baggy they now fit, and where they had fit, they were now tight. Her shoes painted her feet with blisters and she assumed the same must be true for her brother.
But she was still subject to losing her way. All that time in the woods had given neither of them mastery. And so when a cold wind blew across her face from the wrong direction, she finally realized she had been following the wrong star, not the lode star but the bigger, brighter dog star. “No,” she said, and balled her hands into fists, her fists into the ridges of bone above her eyes, as though to lock hot tears in place. Her cheeks became wet regardless. It didn’t matter that they had followed the wrong star since she didn’t know which direction to go, but somehow it mattered to get something wrong, to get wrong the one thing she had tried to do.
“We have to sleep,” her brother said.
“No,” his sister said.
“We have to sleep,” he said.
In the morning they woke up on the banks of a stream. They were lucky they had not fallen in. When she woke up, her brother was already awake, crouching near the water. Hay-colored sunlight glinted on the tops of the trees, their reflections gilded in the water.
“Wait,” she told him as his hands cupped and dipped into the water.
The stream murmured very softly and they listened to it. “Who drinks from me will never hunger,” it said, half a whisper and half a melody.
Her brother lunged for the water and she grabbed him by the collar of his coat and yanked him back, too hard, hard enough that he hit his head and started to cry, then cried harder for shame of crying. “You know I’m hungry!” he said.
“Look,” his sister said. “It’s light enough now, look at the tracks.” Wolf tracks led away from the stream where footprints led toward it. They led only away. Wolves, who need not fear hunger because they would eat their own kind. “We’ll melt snow if we get thirsty. We’ll eat pine tar if we get hungry.”
“I’m always hungry,” her brother said. “You don’t even care.”
There were three ways they could leave the woods. They could find the path to town, and sell the silverware, sell the watch, and have enough money to live on for a while. They could rent a room and her brother could prentice to someone, maybe a huntsman or a woodcutter. They would wash in tubs, and grow old, and his sister would never have children of her own but would marry a man with a daughter. The man would love his daughter even more than his new wife, and her brother would promise to bury the daughter’s heart in the deepest part of the forest, so that his sister would never be sent away. But his sister would leave for the woods anyway, half out of shame and half out of fear that the daughter still lived. She would dig and dig, leaving holes all over the forest, looking for the heart but finding only the tiny house that lay above it. She would dig until her fingers no longer looked human, while the trees all around murmured to her. “The witch was your father’s first wife,” they whispered, wind trilling through their hollows. “He sent her away when she could not give him children.”
They continued through the woods. There was no snow to melt yet but they found rain collected in tree trunks and dew in the fortunes of leaves. They found berries that did not make them sick no matter how many they ate, and pears that were barely wormy. There was no path. She was not even sure in which direction the town lay. Their father had not taken them to market day in over a year.
“We need to sleep,” her brother said at last.
“No,” his sister said. Her brother tugged at her arm, and they found a place where the moss was dry, where the ground was soft.
“We need to sleep,” he said.
The last of the stars were still burning overhead when she awoke, a slash carved in the tree canopy by the stream that wound through the forest. She woke up thirsty but would never tell her brother so. She bent down close to the stream as he slumbered behind her, and listened. “Who drinks from me will never fall,” it said. It was wet, gurgly. The current was slow and it dribbled around sharp rocks that had cut their feet when they tried to walk through it instead of along the ground. The bank of the stream was marked by snake tracks. There was no way of knowing if they led toward or away, but she would take no chance and give her brother no opportunity to consider it. She pulled him through the woods, away from the babbling brook, before he was awake enough to notice it.
There were three ways they could leave the woods. Her brother had left a breadcrumb trail when they were abandoned, but birds had eaten the breadcrumbs before they could follow it back. But they knew about how far they had come, and if they were orderly about it and didn’t get distracted, they could find the path back home eventually. It might take a long time but if they were careful enough it would work. They could go home and find their mother already dead of starvation, their father mad with guilt and drink. There would be no more to eat than there was before, but they could sleep in their beds again. Some day they could go to town on market day and buy apples and honey. Her brother could learn to trap rabbits like their uncle used to. His sister would sleep in her bed and some day she would grow up but she would never have children because the idea of being a mother made her feel sick and hot.
In the night his sister would hear their dead mother whispering very close to her ear. “The witch was your older sister,” she would say. “We abandoned her in the woods when I was pregnant with you. She prepared a home for you.”
This time they followed the stream, not walking along its banks but keeping it in sight, always to the left of them. Her brother insisted on it but his sister admitted it made sense. “The stream will leave the woods eventually,” he said. “It will run into a lake or meet another river or open out into the ocean.”
“I don’t think there is an ocean beyond these woods,” she said. “I am not sure there is an ocean anywhere for real.”
“But it will go somewhere,” he said. “It will go somewhere besides here.”
It did seem that had to be true, and so they abandoned his sister’s stars and navigated by the sound of the trickling chitter of the splashing stream, the belch of the frog, the splish of birds nabbing bugs from the surface. Over the course of the day the character of the light on the water changed, glimpsed in the gaps between trees, and soon it was as dark as the sky between the leaves.
“I have to drink,” her brother said when they had found soft moss to sleep on.
“No,” his sister said.
“I have to drink,” her brother said. “The hunger never went away. The thirst is worse.”
They knelt by the banks of the stream, bare knees in the black mud. He had taken his coat and shirt off to use as a pillow, and his skin stretched over his bones looked like welts in the moonlight. “Listen,” his sister said. “Listen first.”
“Look at the mud,” her brother said. “There are no tracks but ours. There are no tracks at all.”
“But listen to be sure,” his sister said, and they listened.
“Who drinks from me will never thirst,” the whispers said, as the water rushed past a narrow curve.
Her brother hooted triumphantly and filled his cupped hands with water, lapping at them like a dog.
“No!” his sister shouted, slapping his hands away, but it was too late. Her hand met cool marble and stung. She bent down to look at his agate eyes and found nothing there looking back. Her brother had turned to stone.
There were three ways they could leave the woods. His sister followed the stream until it trickled away into nothingness. She wandered until she found a place without birdsong, without breezes, a place where the moss was verdant on the ground and the trees never lost their needles. The house was so close to the trees even a child could touch it just by leaning forward. There was no more smoke coming from the chimney and the fire in the oven had gone out. She opened the door and the hinge squeaked with age, as if whispering, whining, “There was never a witch at all.” She closed the door behind her and found a warm place to lie.