Helga had long believed she would die at the hand of the witch of the woods.
Every child in town had heard the stories. Long ago, the witch was said to live inside a Clocktower attached to a train station, a limestone monolith that peered over the smoky town with an ever-watching eye. The clock’s face glowed at night.
“That’s how you know she’s up there,” Helga’s father told her mother on their first date, a nighttime stroll along the built-up riverside. “She’s probably watching us right now.”
“Is she really real?” Helga’s not-yet-mother asked.
Helga’s father nodded. “They say she traveled here from the old country. She’s got more years on her than a stone, than the river right there.”
And then Helga’s father kissed her mother, and Helga’s mother kissed him back. She loved it when he talked poetic to her, and if she felt peculiar kissing in eyeshot of the famous Witch of the River City, she tried not to think about it.
When the train station was demolished and a grand park unfurled where it once stood, the witch hobbled from her high room at the top of the tower into the lamp-lit night, and rode the northern bus line to its final stop. There, she receded into the woods where she’d been ever since.
The witch was someone you went to with grievous problems, and only as a last resort. You never knew what she’d demand in terms of payment. She could cure your kidney disease, but take your eyes in exchange. She’d demand wedding rings for new hearts, gold for gallbladders. She’d make you beautiful, but grow you a thick, coiling tail for your trouble.
The witch’s specialty, everyone knew, was fixing unruly children. Sometimes she might send them back as docile little dolls who never caused trouble again. Sometimes, she wouldn’t send them back at all.
It was common practice for parents of the town to threaten their children with a visit to the witch, and Helga’s parents were no exception. Helga was a misbehaving child, and nothing like her parents. While they took long hikes in the forest, Helga preferred to sit still, silently observing the universe in the way of children who are misunderstood. To pass the time, she ate German pastries and taught herself curse words on the internet. All the better to face the daily battle of school.
Helga’s parents had blown gaskets when Helga was in middle school and they’d learned she’d been asking the other children to call her Daisy.
“Daisy is a name for a Pomeranian,” her mother said. “Maybe, maybe a bichon frise. Daisy is not the name of my daughter.”
Helga crossed her arms and unconsciously stuck out her bottom lip. “Helga’s a stupid name,” she replied. “It sounds like I serve beer. It sounds like I enter contests where I break things with my thighs.”
“Helga is a strong name!” her father said. He wore an expression like he was attempting to decipher a strange, unknowable code, but the code was his daughter.
“You don’t understand the modern American school system,” Helga retorted. “My name is Helga von Weiner. Do you know what my chances are in life because of you?”
“School will toughen you up. You’re too…soft, Helga,” her mother said, and cast a weary eye at Helga’s belly, puffed up like rising dough beneath her T-shirt.
Helga’s mouth stretched in silent shock. She gathered up all of her spit and flung it on the ground in front of her parents, and tore from the room.
Her parents didn’t know it, but Helga was already tough, and growing tougher. By high school, her heart had built up a callous, thick as the one on the bottom of her foot, and she found she didn’t feel things as strongly anymore. She heard the taunts of her schoolmates – “Helga, show me your Weiner!” – distantly, as if listening from the bottom of a well.
The summer of her sophomore year, her parents decided they’d had enough. Enough of her sullenness, her selfishness. Her pain. A neighbor whose son enjoyed lighting things on fire recommended the witch of the woods. “Bryce has improved so much,” the neighbor said. “He only speaks in Catalan now, and I do sometimes find burnt socks in the garage, but he’s really much better than before.”
Helga thought her rib cage might splinter from how hard her heart was banging as her parents drove to the witch’s house. They’d been given very vague directions (“Head north until your hair beings to go staticky like you’ve just run a balloon over it, then take the next left. If you see the cow with the strange eyes, you’ve gone too far.”)
Her mother slowed the car on a rutted dirt road and a wooden hut materialized through the trees. They stepped from the car and examined the house. The walls were brown, but not made of wood or brick or any material Helga recognized. The air smelled faintly of ginger. The house’s facade was decorated in thick white loop-de-loops and swirls that reminded Helga, inexplicably, of royal icing.
Before Helga’s father could knock, the door creaked open and a face filled the doorway, one more weathered and wrinkled than Helga had ever seen. The witch came up to Helga’s waist and she peered out at them through a pair of chipped round lenses tied to her ears with silver wire.
“A surly girl,” the witch said, examining Helga. “The parents are fed up.”
“Um,” Helga’s father said, swallowing. “That’s right. We’re hoping you can…fix her.”
“There is a price,” the witch said. Her voice came like a frog ribbiting. “A bargain must have a price.”
“We know,” her mother said, reaching for her purse. “We can pay.”
The woman twitched her head to the side. “Not that kind of price.”
“What do you want?” her father asked.
“You will know after I cure your daughter,” the witch said, adjusting her threadbare shawl. “No refunds. No money back guarantees.”
Helga’s parents cast each other an anxious look, and nodded. “We’ll pay.”
The witch crooked an arthritic finger at Helga and waved her inside. Helga looked back at her parents, who were studying the forest floor strewn with yellowed pine needles, not glancing up. Helga sighed and followed the witch inside.
She was confronted with the hot scents of garlic and caramel and spice. From the ceiling hung bouquets of herbs, and leather-bound books were scattered across every surface. Something thick and blood-colored boiled in a golden pot over a fire, and along the back wall was an old-fashioned oven the size of a car. Helga’s entire body grew clammy. Her fingers vibrated by her sides.
“Sit,” the witch croaked, indicating an overstuffed chair by the fire, an enormous tabby cat stretched on the back. Helga sat down lightly.
“Out with it,” the witch barked. “What is wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” Helga said, her voice coming out petulant and high. “Only my name is Helga von Weiner, and I’m nothing like my parents, and I hate hiking, and I just want to go on the computer and be left alone.”
The witch gathered up her mouth as though thinking hard. Helga wondered if the witch had heat vision and could zap her to death right then and there.
“You’re wrong,” the witch muttered at last. “There is something wrong with you. Two things actually. And they are standing just beyond that door.”
While Helga’s mind sorted through the words, her heart was already floating inside of her chest. A smile crept over her mouth. “You can tell that just by looking at me?”
“I saw your parents once before,” the witch said. “Only briefly, but I remember every person I’ve seen. They kissed by the Clocktower, and then your father said, ‘You’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever Frenched.’ I remember fearing for whatever child those imbeciles brought into the world.”
“So,” Helga asked, still blinking back surprise. “You’re not going to fix me? You’ll let me go?”
The witch’s eyes pinched. “Your parents have commissioned my services. I can’t renege. That’s against the rules of my magic.”
Helga felt the woman’s eyes rove across her face, their touch something physical, like tiny fingers. “Your parents’ names, what are they?”
“My father’s called Hansel von Weiner,” Helga said, slowly. “And my mother’s Gretel.”
The witch’s eyes seemed to burn. Helga had to look away, and her gaze found those strange walls made of, Helga could swear, gingerbread.
The witch’s voice came wistfully. “I’m suddenly so very hungry.” The witch’s eyes traced the metal monstrosity of the oven on the back wall. “I haven’t had a proper meal in such a long time.”
Helga’s blood began to slow, the witch’s words gradually creeping over her. “You’d really do that?”
“They accepted the price,” the witch said in her croaking voice. “No refunds. No money back guarantees.”
Lead photo credit: (Illustration by Molly Quinn)