The way it goes is this: witches are always wicked and all-knowing. It also goes: children are always true-hearted and ignorant to the workings of the world. There was a witch boy who lived in the woods whose very existence disproved this either/or dichotomy. He was the overlap, living in a witch house that thrived at the end of a long, brambled path—this is the part that is familiar—the umbral trees, the whirl of cicadas, the hurried feet of passersby moving in their own geometries from Entrance A to Exit B—avoiding ambling in the witch boy’s woods for too long.
The witch boy was the witch of fragrance and the witch of sweets, and he knew far too much about the world—but also—not enough. One is a trait of witches, the other is a trait of boys. Sometimes strangers would wander onto his property by accident, and he would guide them home. Sometimes strangers would wander onto his property by choice, and he would listen to their desires and make those desires real. Most of the time, the witch boy asked the witch house to eat these strangers, and it did so. A witch man could exist too, understanding how the logical relations between different magical scenarios overlap in their finiteness. Adults are so complicated in their magic. A witch boy, however, is still a boy, and so there is a simple cruelty to his power—an infinity to his will—which is why there will be no moral here, in regards to the witch boy, who would not listen. If there was one thing to remember, it would be this: do not attempt to deceive those who see clearly. A better lesson—at least one the witch boy would like—is be as wicked as you desire and forgo mercy if it benefits you.
It was a young, redheaded girl about the witch boy’s age who wandered into his woods by mistake. It was the only redheaded person the witch boy had ever seen. Amongst all the woods’ dark browns and greens the girl saw something pop: a pastel house. Blue and pink candyfloss. Something recalling the uniforms of sailors. Cumulus. Fat daisies growing from the cloud-lined base that hovered above the ground. The windows: they were all cookie portholes. This strange house was surrounded by a vanilla wafer fence that stretched around back, hiding a secret garden or such. When the witch boy sat her at the table to eat all the tarts of the world, she’d often smell a cold metal behind the sugar after each bite. As she worked on her fourth one she thought she saw red running down the walls at her periphery. When she turned, it was gone. When she went to open the fridge to pour herself a glass of milk—and instead saw the tongue uncurling from the throat of hell—her final thought was, “Oh.”
It’s not a good final thought.
A witch house is a murder house and the reason it’s a murder house is because it’s a fear house. The witch house consumes the thoughts of all those who enter it. It knows their elaborate dread. It’s seen all the horrible movies and swallowed all the haunted houses traversed by its visitors. For this reason alone a witch house certainly has a predisposition for theatrics. It knows how to make the gumdrop eyes of the gingerbread paintings in the hallway follow you. Or have rock candy hammers come out of the ceiling and smash your fragile human bones as you think your last monosyllabic thoughts.
A witch house is domestic in the same way that a cat or a dog is domestic—in fact—a witch house possesses characteristics of both: loyalty, aloofness, quirkiness, vengeance. A witch house enacts the desires of a witch boy, and a witch boy becomes the aspects he represents. There are rules because there have to be rules. If you looked at the witch boy from the corner of your eyes, you’d see cinnamon pupils and bubblegum teeth. You’d see rotating flowers spinning out of his chest, the golden pollen hitting golden light as it floats through that space below the porthole. You can smell him always though: the butterscotch, the roses, the sweetwater running through his veins.
A witch house gets its powers from eating people inside of its witch house perimeters, and a witch boy gets his power from the witch house, and mundane people gain power by the good grace of a witch boy. There are always systems in place. A witch boy does not ever truly act alone. This witch boy cannot do everything—especially if it’s out of the jurisdiction of fragrances and sweets. If mortals ask for riches, he can make a perfume that sells for thousands. If they want more, he will speak to the magpies and they will bring him riches, at a price. The witch boy dislikes third parties—especially beasts—because they are unpredictable, although if they cause him trouble the witch house would just eat them too. He could talk to the bees if he needed the secrets of the dead, or talk to the moles if he needed the secrets of the earth, or else the griffon vulture if he needed the secrets of the sky. Every small part fits into another, each creature with its own willpower and desires, and like this the world continues scraping on.
On a day when the witch house was full of blood and meat (and thus was comfortably snoozing), an old woman wandered along the path, knocked on the front door, which was currently a crystallized ginger. The witch boy answered, and because the house was stuffed with human innards, and because the boy, too, was feeling gregarious, he decided he would spare the woman. The woman said that she heard a witch boy lived in the woods, past the long thorny paths—a witch boy who could do anything.
The witch boy was flattered, and asked what the woman needed: a new perfume that would attract young suitors for miles around? A cake that would feed hundreds when broken up—or perhaps a bag of jelly beans that would warm as eternal tinder when held in the palm? No, the old woman said, producing a lock of red hair wrapped in yellow ribbon—I’m here to find my daughter.
Well, you’ve found her, the witch boy thought, as he rubbed a hand against the wall of the house, but said nothing. Only—“I am not a witch of death or a witch of lost things.” The old woman winced over the word death. “However,” continued the witch boy, “As everyone knows, bees are the messengers of every corner of the earth. I will summon the bees, and they will fly, they will seek—they will even pass into the land of the dead if they must—and they can bring back a single message.” He coughed dramatically and said, “All of this will cost you.”
Predictably the woman replied, “I’ll pay anything.”
And so they went on making transactions and bargains. The witch boy thought the witch house would appreciate his histrionics, how together they could elaborately prepare for a stranger’s doom. And to think—he almost acted piously. The witch house appreciated this gesture of the long con, as it was not only a dwelling, but also a thespian and a hustler. The witch boy stood on his porch and the bees came as legion. They spoke in dark hums. “Go only to the land past the veil of life,” the witch boy instructed. “Do not waste your time searching the living world. She is not there. Bring back a message for her mother.” The bees responded, “We know you have a secret garden with all the sweetest flowers of the world in your back yard, past your wafer fence. Let us enter in exchange for this labor.”
The witch boy responded with, “Yes, you may enter, but the secret garden may only be accessed by the route of my house’s hallways. You must enter the front door, exit the back door, and you will be in the garden where my prized flowers grow. If you try to fly over the picket fence, you will immediately exit on the other side. If this enchantment was not in place, the secret garden would not be a secret garden.” The witch boy hated bees like he hated all creatures outside of himself: because they had desires he couldn’t quite control, because he had to make bargains of his own.
And everything went as it did. The bees traveled through dark sands, into a place where the moon swung like a pendulum and the air felt as molasses does. They found the girl with red hair, and she whispered onto the wings of bees a final plea.
And the old woman sat on the porch on a rocking chair made of mellocreme. She rocked and rocked and then heard a sound like quiet lightning. The bees returned. The witch boy appeared next to her and said, “Tell us, oh bees, where the young girl is.”
“You know,” said the bees in unison, “For you sent us to the land of the dead, where we found the redheaded child, and she sent this message.” And then in strange vibrations her ghostly voice entered the air singing, “O Mother! Avenge me, avenge me, for I was eaten by the witch house, devoured by the evil will of the witch boy who lives inside of it. Defeat him and free me from this land of the dead where trees grow out of bone and the grey sun hisses.”
It was a passionate plea, and although it was true-hearted, and few things are as pure as the yearning of a ghost child, a ghost child is still a child, and all children are naïve. There was nothing her mother could do. Some red licorice along the front of the witch house curled up, as it was smiling. The mother stood up, aghast, pointing her elbows out as if pre-emptively protecting her body from what she sensed coming. All the witch boy said was, “You have found your daughter.” The witch boy didn’t envision how it would end, but like a bad twin who finishes the other’s sentences, the witch house went to work.
The ceiling of the porch was opening up, pouring molten candy over the mother’s sad, scared form. She screamed a horrible scream as chunks of her hair became encapsulated in sugar, and all of her skin burned from the molten sucrose. People who say, “I would do anything for…” seldom live for their own desires, but rather give themselves up to the wish granter’s whims. The woman offered anything as payment and paid with her life. Although she was old, she was not very tall, as time had shrunk her, and the witch boy found that when he stood on his tippy toes he was tall enough to lick her eyeball with his tongue. The candy had set, and it was sweet.
And like that, the boy kept his promise—at least half of it—and ushered the bees into the witch house. He was pleased with himself, but also slightly remorseful. He was not regretful that a woman he intended to spare ended up being devoured, only that a killing occurred when the witch house was full. It was a wasted meal, and wasted meals are unfavorable. He decided, while holding the front door open for the bees, that the next three people who came to the witch house, he would spare, even if the witch house hungered. He thought this generous.
Thousands and thousands of bees flew into the house, down the long corridor, towards the back door, where they would be lead into a secret garden where the flowers grew in the light of the divine. But when all those bees were inside, the front door closed, and the back door never opened. The hallway just got longer and longer, and just as the bees got closer, the back door got further away. If a witch boy keeps one promise and not the other, it’s because all boys are naughty and capricious, which has little to do with witchcraft, and more with the cruel nature of children.
Because bees are not witches or humans, they see everything for what it is. They understood the trick of the endless corridor. They knew they were supposed to fly until their little thunder bodies gave way. The witch boy meant to exhaust them until the witch house would finish them. The bees saw the witch boy’s true form—his red vine hair, the hot cinnamon sweets of his eyes. They saw past all the illusions the witch boy conjured up, and broke out of the hallway the way one might slip off a silk veil. Approaching the witch boy, the bees saw all the strange flowers dancing out of his chest, and thus landed upon his true form. If a witch boy refuses to see his own death, it is unknown if that comes from his witch side or his boy side, as the arrogant belief that one will live forever is not exclusive to either witches or boys.
“These strange flowers will do,” the bees sang as chorus, and the witch boy swatted them off, furious that the witch house failed him. The witch house felt embarrassed, and then, righteous, protectively angered. “We will make honey from your flowers and claim your body as our home,” the bees continued to sing. The witch house sensed the witch boy’s rage at being subjected to this song. It was a second chance to make things right. Floorboards sprang up, smashing the bees into the ceiling. Portions of the wall slid out. Entire caramel bricks flew about, flattening the bees wherever they moved. However, thousands and thousands of bees are many, and a witch boy is one, even with a willful witch house as protector. The bees stung and stung, and danced, and pollinated, and bit and ate tiny, tiny portions of the witch boy’s skin. But tiny, tiny portions add up, and soon the witch boy was covered in holes. He squirmed as the bees crawled inside him and sang. The bees walked down to his heart as he struggled, and they sang a lullaby to put his heart to sleep. And along with the beat of their will, the witch boy sang, “Oh,” inside his own head, which as we all know, is not a good final thought. Then the bees hummed a requiem, for his witch heart had stopped, and then, in the witchless morning, the bees sang an aubade, for the witch house became just house without the witch boy to lead it.
After the witch boy died, no one seemed to find the house anymore—or knew what happened to him. It would be unfair to say nothing pleasant occurred in this aftermath in which only the bees survived. As the witch house did not consume the redheaded child’s mother, her spirit was able to float around the house in unrest, cursing the dead body of the witch boy who could provide no wisdom or solace. It seemed that witches had no souls, as after the witch boy had died his body lingered like a honey-covered shell.
The mother found herself unable to leave the perimeter of the property, which was a harsh fate, until the one day she discovered a new trick: her ghost could grab onto the backs of bees (which returned to their secret garden quite often), letting her soul move with the swarm. As to why this was, few can say. Perhaps there are still kindnesses to this world—perhaps there are allowances to all these rules. Eventually, the bees returned to that dark land, and as the drones passed over her redheaded daughter, the mother was able to swoop down and grab her beloved child’s hand, taking her back to that place they both died.
Although they didn’t have bodies, the house was beautiful, and plentiful, even without all of its old enchantments. The mother found out her love for her daughter allowed her to move objects in the kitchen, and so she made tarts, as these were the daughter’s favorite. As they sat across from each other at the table, possessed by their own ghostly forms, but able to consume sweets all the same, they found a resolution in each other’s company. It was a love between a mother and daughter that no one except mothers and daughters could know. Their spirits were satisfied, which is why they were able to ascend to wherever spirits ascend after they have overcome their unclean deaths. It would not be precarious to assume their mutual joy lasted forever.
The bees continued to return to make their honey. Each corner of the house became hive. Some bees lived inside the chest cavity of the witch boy, who sat as statues sit in the witchless house. The bees made the sweetest, most fragrant honey that any human could ever dream of tasting—but—no one ever did. Although no one ever found the house again, its essence haunted the forest. As travelers passed through the woods, they could always smell a sweet scent moving through the breeze. It was a cold sweetness, though, one that raised the hair on their arms. If they inhaled too deeply, they could even foresee a microsecond of a terrible future they were part of. Perhaps there was a little magic left. This scent continued to do its work: whoever smelled that cold sweetness picked up the pace, hurried along—forward and forward and forward—continuing on towards wherever it was they were going. Past the exit of the woods. Onward. Refusing to look back at whatever pleasant and horrible thing still lingered.
JD Scott is the author of two chapbooks. Recent and forthcoming publications include Best American Experimental Writing, Denver Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Salt Hill, The Pinch, Ninth Letter, The Baltimore Review, The Atlas Review, Hotel Amerika, Barely South Review, Apogee, Winter Tangerine, and elsewhere. More of JD’s writing can be found at jdscott.com.
Artwork: Amy Sanford