BY A.K. KELLY
Everyone knows the witch woman in some form. She is the wrinkled crone who digs through your garbage bins looking for recyclables the day the city comes to collect them. She is your grandmother after a long day of watching you—her terribly behaved, spoiled grandchildren, who at times find her slow and old and consequently, uninteresting. She is the quiet, lonely woman in the corner of a bookstore who dreams of a different world. The witch woman is all of these and more.
Fortunately for her, what you do not know is why it is so easy for her to fool you. It is the way she collects the things from your mind and soul you wished the universe would forget—she knows how you've lied and every time you've cried, she knows how you cheated and stole, and how you take when you should give. She knows how you assume when you should use your head for what it was made to do. The witch woman collects these bones of your regrets in her basket, in her crate, and in her shopping market cart because that is what the witch woman does.
After she acquires these things of yours, she breathes into them, and these otherwise forgotten things take another living form. She has created creatures as small as salamanders and as large as tornadoes. (If you do not think a tornado is a creature, the witch woman suggests you use your mind to redefine what you think of as a creature, and then she must ask whether or not you've been inside a tornado like she has—a hurricane has its eye and a tornado has a heart, a terrible heart, but a heart nonetheless that lives and breathes.) One such creature the witch woman created was a man, her forgetful lover.
It was at the height of a marvelous summer when the witch woman took the bones she had collected and reformed them into the shape of a man. At first, she wasn't certain about the ingredients she should use because she'd never made a man before, and she figured if she were going to take the time to do this, he had better be perfect because what was the point of creating a flawed man? So the witch woman imagined the qualities she thought were ideal—kind, patient, loving—and she took a deep inhale and blew her breath over and through the bones. In a single instant, the flesh and body of a man formed, and in a second instant, his eyes opened and she saw they were as dark and deep as the ocean. The witch woman knew all the way to her heart that this man was indeed the perfect man. She brought him back to her house in the woods, a house that was made of trees, mud, and leaves, and there they lived happily for many years.
Over time, the witch woman began to see that her perfect man was not quite as perfect as she thought. In fact, there were moments she wondered why she had ever created a man in the first place. This did not mean she did not love him, she did—she loved him very much—but her love was complex and difficult to navigate. The forgetful lover was absentminded, for starters, and he never really took initiative to do things without her asking him first. These were minor flaws in comparison to those other people demonstrated in the world, the witch woman told herself, and she reassured her doubts with the fact that she knew his character was sound because she had imagined it for herself.
That being said, character can be as complicated of a creature as love and tornadoes, and traits that are good on the surface, such as kindness, are often more intricate than mere association with their benefit. The witch woman had forgotten the yin and yang theory of the world—that darkness cannot exist without the light—in her imagining of this perfect, kind, and loving man. When she created him to be patient, she never considered the qualities of his mind that would allow him to be so. And truthfully, he was patient because he was able to forget many things. This infuriated the witch woman because she was a very passionate woman and had a long and permanent memory, and it is hard for people, even the powerful witch woman, to understand those whose minds function differently than their own. The witch woman thought perhaps she should not have made such a patient man, but then he would act kindly and lovingly and the witch woman would forget about his forgetfulness.
When word of a terrible war spread to where the witch woman and her forgetful lover lived, her lover decided that he must join the other warriors in the fight. He was motivated by the stories of injustice he'd heard, about how the enemy attacked homes and murdered children. The very thought of these people and their suffering made him forget that he loved the witch woman and that she would suffer in his absence.
When he returned to their mud home in the woods to tell the witch woman that he would leave, she saw in his eyes that there was little she could do to convince him not to go. His mind was made up and she too found herself moved by the injustices of the world. At last, she supported his decision to fight.
Before her forgetful lover departed with the others, the witch woman whispered to him: "Of all the things in this world you will not remember, please, do not forget how much I love you."
There were tears in her eyes but she held them back because the witch woman tried always not to weep for those things she could not change.
Her forgetful lover took her in his arms and said, "To forget you would be impossible."
As he rode away farther and farther on the horizon, the witch woman thought of all the possible and impossible things in the universe, and though she loved her forgetful lover and trusted that he meant what he said, she could not trust his ability to remember. She had collected enough bones and otherwise forgotten things over the years and thus knew all the ways in which love could be discarded.
The war was long and both sides experienced significant loss of life—life that otherwise would have had the opportunity to grow and become something great if it had not been snuffed out. The witch woman was especially important during these times because if it were not for her work, the people might have remained indifferent to these things. So even in death, in suffering, there was new life that began to grow and take shape from the ashes and bones the witch woman collected and breathed into.
Days passed, and then weeks, and then months, and finally years, and though other warriors returned to their homes and their families, the witch woman's forgetful lover did not return. It was at that time the witch woman wept for what she could not change and her tears fell across the blank sky and became the stars—her grief became the sidereal map that guides all lost souls, no matter where they are in the world. Despite the map she etched in the heavens, the witch woman's lover did not return.
Over the mountains, across the high desert, and down into the grassy plains, there existed a village that suffered greatly in the war. In that village was the home of a woman who had lost many people, including her husband, and on her bed, cloaked in animal skins, lay the witch woman's forgetful lover. His eyes were clouded and opaque, and he was known among these people as the blind warrior.
A malicious, fire-breathing snake had reared its head in the last battle of the war and killed thousands of people. Not being able to bear their suffering, the forgetful lover took his blade and beheaded the snake; however, in its last action before it fell, the snake blasted him with a toxic fume. The fumes cast a powerful spell that bound his mind from his heart and his eyes from the world.
Rosa, the woman on whose bed the blind warrior rested, tended to him as if he were her own. She believed if it had not been for this man, she and her children would not have survived. She could not help but love the blind warrior she had saved from the scorched earth. She rubbed ointment over his wounds to relieve the scars left by the snake.
At the precise moment the stars twinkled for the first time and the people of the world paused and gazed upward, the blind warrior awoke.
"Where am I? How did I get here?" he shouted and clutched for his eyes.
Rosa's cool hands pressed him back and her voice, smoky and smooth, bade him to calm himself.
The blind warrior quieted.
After he calmed his mind, he noticed the stinging in his nostrils and the variations of light at the corners of his eyes—he felt around where he had slept for weeks and caressed the smooth and bristled furs.
"What happened to me?"
"You were in a great battle. And you defeated our greatest enemy, but I'm afraid you suffered for it."
Another voice spoke then and the blind warrior listened.
"Mother what are these lights? Is the enemy coming back?"
Rosa pressed her finger to her lips to quiet the girl.
"No, child. Those lights are not from the enemy. They are from somewhere else."
"But where, mother?"
"Shh. I don't know."
"Who are you people?" the blind warrior said.
"What do you remember?" Rosa said.
"Nothing. I—my mind is blank. Can you tell me anything about who I am?"
Rosa paused and considered that here was a kind and brave man. She weighed his blindness against how he had suffered, and then she weighed that against how she had suffered and how her children would grow up without a father.
"You are my husband and our children's father," Rosa said. "And you have forgotten us, but I am sure the memories will return."
The blind warrior sighed. He had been worried that he was missing something—even in his dreams he had been burdened by a great emptiness in his heart; however, he trusted this woman and her soothing voice, that what he had forgotten was her. She had taken care of him after all, and even seemed to love him.
"Was that our child who spoke?" he asked.
Rosa coaxed the girl and her brother from the shadows.
"Come and see your father, children."
The boy had never known his father, and so he could easily believe the blind warrior was him. The girl was unsure. She had been small, too small to have formed a solid memory when her father left for the battle, but not so small as to not realize that this man was not who her mother said he was. The blind warrior put his hand to each of their faces and memorized everything in an instant. It was then the girl thought it was enough just to know that he was different. She saw how happy her mother had become and it seemed acceptable that a lie had overtaken the truth.
Many years passed, and the blind warrior lived as husband to Rosa and father to the children, Rea and Tye.
In midsummer, the blind warrior took the children fishing. They packed enough supplies to spend the night close to the water, so early in the morning, at the cusp of dawn, they could fish before returning home. Rosa kissed them goodbye and watched as they journeyed to the lake.
Two hours later, the blind warrior and his children arrived at the water. They made camp and set up their fishing lines and waited. Then they laid on the boulders and listened to the water flow from the creek. Then they waited some more. (That was all fishing was really, a game of waiting.) Tye found the activity dull and decided to throw stones at a much larger boulder to stay busy.
The boulder turned out to be a great bear named Ysa, whose paws were the size of a grown man. She stood on her hind legs and roared, and a distant mountain crumbled. The blind warrior rushed to apologize for the boy's insolence and convinced her not to kill them. Ysa was sleepy and went back to napping peacefully; however, the blind warrior figured he and the children should make camp on the other side of the lake just in case the bear changed her mind. Rea and Tye helped him pack up and move and by the time they had set up camp on the other side of the lake, the moon had risen and several stars dotted the sky.
Rea turned to her father and asked where the stars came from, how they were made.
"As far back as my memory goes, there are no stars. Perhaps, if you describe to me what they look like, I will remember them."
Rea described the stars as small and powerful, bright and yet, they seemed alone. There was so much space between each of them, she said.
Tye gnawed on jerky and spit seeds into the cattails as the blind warrior thought about what Rea said. These stars seemed familiar. He traveled the length of his memory to the moment when he woke to Rosa and the children. There was nothing before that, nothing at all... and yet there was something there, beating in his heart. It was something he could feel but not name.
"I'm sorry, Rea, but I don't remember them."
"I wish you could see," Rea said. "They are beautiful and sad. Maybe if mother had not lied to you, you would remember the stars."
Rea spoke without thinking, revealed the truth without meaning to do so.
"What do you mean?"
"Please, tell me what it is."
"My father was different before the war."
"War does change people."
"Even the way they smell?"
"I don't know."
"When you came into our home and mother said you were our father, I thought that was how things worked. But what she said is not the truth."
"Why would mother lie?" the boy said.
"Because she wanted us to be happy," Rea said.
The blind warrior was troubled. He had grown to love the children and Rosa, but if he were not the person Rosa said, then he had no idea who he was at all.
Early the next morning, without setting up the fishing lines, the blind warrior and his children journeyed back to the house where Rosa tended to her root vegetables in the garden.
Tye ran to his mother when he saw her and exclaimed, "Rea said that this is not my real father, that our real father is dead."
The blind warrior could not help but notice how Rosa's voice changed slowly as if she were stepping over bits of glass.
"Your sister is playing a joke. Of course this is your father, who else would he be?"
"That's not true," Rea whispered.
"Why are you doing this?" Rosa pleaded.
"Because," Rea said, "Every man deserves to know who he is, where he comes from, and what made him. This man doesn't know such things."
Rosa did not know how her daughter had grown into such wisdom, but Rea was right. The man was not hers and he had a right to know himself honestly. Rosa admitted that in her pain and loneliness she had lied. Though he had grown to love them all as his family, the blind warrior knew that he had to find out who and what he was, and to do so, he would do what people had always done since the beginning of time when they had such large questions as these—they journeyed to the mountains.
When faced with the splendor of the mountains, the blind warrior became nothing more than a blind man. He wandered for so long, bearing the alpine winters and summers, that eventually he believed himself to be lost within them. He moved further and further from what he thought of as himself and when his feet and soul ached to the point he knew that he could not endure another step, the blind man stumbled on a large object that grumbled and growled and threatened to kill him.
It was Ysa, the giant bear, once again, with shaggy brown fur and teeth as long as a man's forearm. She was the first of her kind to take to the mountains and make a home. Her eyes were pools of dark space, and when she moved, the ground rumbled and boulders rolled from the highest peaks.
"I know you, blind man," she growled.
"Yes, we met at the lake."
"Yes, and your son threw rocks at me and disturbed my sleep. Ysa does not forget. And now you disturb my sleep here in this valley. I should kill you. I should tear your limbs from their bones and eat you. I should—"
"Perhaps you should do all of that," the blind man interjected, "but even if you did or do. I don't know that I would care."
"Why would you not care?" Ysa said. "It is your life."
"I have lost everything, Ysa," the blind man said.
"How did this come to be?"
He told the bear about what had happened with Rosa—he told her about how the great, fire-breathing snake was all he knew of himself. Before that, there was nothing but darkness.
"It is as if I came from nothing. I am lost."
Despite her vicious nature, the bear felt sorry for the blind man whose blistered feet and broken heart were heaping waves of sorrow.
"Tell me something, blind man. If you are right about what you say, perhaps, I will carry you from these mountains instead of killing you and eating you for dinner."
"What would you like for me to tell you? I am not wise. I do not know as much of the world as I should."
"Are you refusing my offer?"
"No," he said. "What would you like me to tell you?"
"What do you know of my desire?"
The blind man thought about it and then he said, "I know that you long to be free, Ysa. That you long to roam the lands with your children and to never have to worry that harm will come to them. But, I also know that this is not the way of the world. To live without harm, is not to live. You know this is the way the world brings about change. Suffering is, unfortunately unavoidable."
"You are a blind man, and yet, some things you see."
"I am nothing more than a blind man who will die in these mountains."
"Perhaps some day, blind man, but not today."
Despite her instinct to kill him, the bear was also curious and decided to carry him to the nearest village. It took a week to climb over the mountain passes and into the foothills. (Ysa kept causing rockslides.) When the great bear and the blind man arrived in the village, the people believed the bear was his wife. Because he had managed to tame the wildest of mountain animals, the villagers made him their leader. The blind man accepted and offered the bear whatever she desired in return for her generosity.
Now, bears are usually hungry, and so, Ysa requested enough nuts, berries, and honey to survive the winter with her children every year. In this manner, the blind man repaid the great bear who carried him from the mountains.
Word spread across the land—tales of a blind man who had tamed a great bear. It spread all the way to the mud home where the witch woman lived with her bones. The tale of this remarkable man came along with rumors of his kindness and patience and generosity as a leader. His eyes, it was rumored, were once as dark as the deepest parts of the sea. The witch woman did not allow herself to hope that her forgetful lover was alive after all this time. She could not allow herself to assume the true nature or identity of the blind man because indeed, if he were alive, then surely he had broken his promise never to forget her. Nevertheless, the witch woman packed her bags. She would journey to this village in the foothills to find this man that lived with his bear-wife and determine once and for all whether or not her forgetful lover still lived.
Leaving her mud hut, the witch woman collected the skeleton of a coyote. She could not explain to herself why these particular bones would prove useful, but in all the time she had spent alone over the years, the witch woman had learned to listen first and foremost to the calm and collected voice that often pushed through the fogginess of all the other voices. This voice was the quietest and strongest. It was the truest. The witch woman recognized each of us was born knowing this part of ourselves—she had collected many variations of this voice over the years from those who discarded it for the expectation of who and what they should be. It was a voice, not of the mind, but of the heart and soul that suggested she collect the bones of this creature. Sure enough, halfway on her journey, those animal bones revealed their purpose.
The witch woman stopped to make camp at the base of a mountain, the highest mountain in the lands. She built a fire to stay warm and watched the stars and remembered that these had come from her, as had everything, more or less. The witch woman did not feel so separate from the vast endlessness of the world at the foot of that great mountain. She wanted to remember that feeling. And so, she removed the bones of the coyote from her satchel and arranged them on pine needles. The witch woman exhaled her breath over and through the bones and the form of a coyote took shape. It stood in front of her with its ragged red fur glinting in the starlight.
"Witch woman, you have brought me back to life. How can I repay you?"
"Coyote, I want you to remind me of my place in this world when I need it. I want you to remind me that although I might feel alone, I am made of everything."
"How should I remind you?"
"When you cry, I will be reminded."
Coyote agreed that whenever he howled, it would be to remind the witch woman that she was not alone, that she belonged to this world and that she too, was made of everything.
The following morning, she continued to the foothills and arrived at the village where the blind man had tamed the great bear and become leader of the people. The witch woman approached him with trepidation. She saw that his eyes had been wounded, his feet had been scarred, and his heart had been broken. Still, in all of this, she also saw that he remained as kind and patient as ever.
"Who is there?" the blind man said.
"Do you not remember?"
"Your voice is familiar."
"You have had many adventures," she said. "Too many."
"This is true. I have, but how would you know?"
"If I had known you could not see, I would have cast my grief to the wind, which you might have heard and felt. This is the reason you are lost: You rely too much on your eyes when it is possible to see with your heart."
"There was a great battle and—."
The witch woman came to the blind man and touched his wounded eyes, his lips, and his ears. She touched his hands and then she embraced him with such might that the blind man thought he would break—but even if he had broken, he would not have minded.
"Witch woman," he said.
"Yes, it is me."
Her voice was golden. In a way, it was like a brilliant sunrise had spread across valley. But wait—a sunrise had spread across the valley. The blind man could see! He was overwhelmed with the feeling of having finally found his way.
Meanwhile, the witch woman was overwhelmed with worry that her forgetful lover had changed too much, that perhaps he would not love her as much as before.
It's not true, the quiet voice told her. Love is like everything in this world that grows and moves with time. It is no different than the rocks that form the mountains or the animal bones that turn to dust. For your love to thrive it must be nurtured from its roots, it must be given the direction of the stars and mountains to grow endlessly. You cannot always hold it close or too tightly. Sometimes, even love must be set free.
How do I know when to choose one or the other? The witch woman asked the voice.
As the tree knows when to shed its leaves in the autumn, so too will you know.
The witch woman relinquished her fears about what had changed and took her forgetful lover's hand. Together they left and returned to their mud home in the woods. In this way, the witch woman and her forgetful lover were reunited after many, many years apart.