Winter Witch by Matt Dovey

I feel their grief moving through the forest. It is like a buried splinter tugging at my skin, working its way further inside. In part this is my deep intimacy with these woods, nurtured through all my thirty years, and in part it is the soft sound of their sobbing, carried through still air that is thick with pine and decay and more.

Their sputtering car could only bring them so close in these dense trees, and now they walk the narrow paths to my cottage. The cadence of footfalls on soft mossy ground tells of something small being carried.

There is only one thing so small and heavy with sorrow.

I stand from my simple kitchen table, my hot tea still steaming there, and greet them at the door. This is not a moment to stand on tradition and wait for their request.

They are heartbreakingly young, still only teenagers. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and his is scruffy, falling over his eyes. They are both pale and frightened, and their thin clothes are poor protection against the winter cold that forever clings to my cottage. She still cradles her fading bump: habit and loss both, I think.

The bundle in his arms is so tiny, so tiny. I always forget just how small a newborn is, and it steals my breath to see it.

I know what they’re going to ask, and I’m going to say no. Better that they blame me and have a focus for their anger than realise that sometimes the universe is simply cruel to no end. Anger without focus would only fester. Anger aimed at me will bind them together and give them support. It will give them each other.

The baby girl is cold when he hands her over. “Please,” he says, his voice scraped raw. “Anything you can do for her, just—please.”

His girlfriend sobs and he pulls her close, holding her with the fierce desperation of the young. I lift back the pink towel that covers the baby and see the closed eyes and blue lips and bruised marks around the neck where the cord caught it.

They must have been alone for the delivery. They can be no more than fifteen, at a guess, and there are still those around here who shame their children for youthful mistakes. They close off happier paths to leave only narrow avenues of misery. So many futures cut off with harsh words alone.

I shake my head softly, not trusting myself to speak. I hold the bundle out to them, to take her back, but the boyfriend looks me in the eye, defiant. “You’re supposed to find a way,” he says. “That’s what everyone says about you. That there’s always something you can do. Please.”

I was going to say no. But who am I to decide nothing can be done?

I step wordlessly into the woods with the baby girl held close to my chest, and the young couple follow, her crying the only sound in my winter forest.

My mother always said, “People think winter is death. But they’re wrong. Winter is potential.” Her gift, and now mine, is this: to see potential. To turn life’s misfortunes to what goodness I can.

I am the winter witch. My cottage is simple stone, deep in the woods. No matter the season, the trees around the house are always bare. They are not dead. They are merely…held. Waiting. This is their magic, and I am the custodian.

I am here when people need me.

I have tended injured soldiers, who have forgotten who they were before they fought. I take them into the woods a way and sit them against the base of a tree. In the dance of autumn leaves I show them what they could be, if they chose, and there is always more than one choice. I do not heal them—that is not my magic. The past is what it is. Potential is for the future, and sometimes people only need reminding that there is a future. That is all hope really is.

When the angry visit me, for their own selfish reasons, I instead show them a black acorn. I plant it, and make it grow through all its seasons in minutes; then they see how it steals the light and life from the wood around it. They see its cost. They learn its lesson. And they leave with a green acorn and my blessing.

Sometimes the walk through the wood to my cottage is enough. The disaffected rekindle their connection to nature, and see the possibilities of life writ large in the branches. Sometimes visitors knock on my door only to say thank you, my service already rendered.

And sometimes I don’t know what I can do. I can only try.

I step between bare trees until I reach the edge of my winter domain, where green ferns start to grow amongst the umber leaves and a hint of freshness carries on the air. I go to the winter tree farthest from my cottage—I know which one it is without thought—and lay the baby girl at the base of the trunk, snuggled between two roots.

I stand back, and pull the magic up through my bare feet, drawing on the potential for life that suffuses this wood. I let it build in me and roil in me, like hot tea swirling inside, and it fills my mouth with the taste of cinnamon spice; then I reach out to link it to the baby girl, acting as the river that carries life from the lake, as the shore that narrows the river, as the rock that shapes the cascade.

And it goes nowhere. It builds and it churns but it does not flow into her. She is too far gone. I release my hold on the magic and it ebbs away.

No. There is always a chance. There is always something to be done.

I draw the magic up again, but this time I let it flow through me, spreading out like spray from a waterfall, without direction or intent. My mind is empty. I leave myself open to possibility.

The autumn leaves suddenly whirl up and twist around us, fluttering over the tiny bundle. As each leaf passes over, it turns green and flies up, lands on a branch and stays there. The baby is hidden from us beneath a flurry of movement, and as the last leaves flutter over and drift up, the bundle is gone, towel and all, as if nothing were ever there.

The girl breaks down in fresh tears, and the boyfriend looks at me in horror, but I feel what has happened. “Look!” I say.

And they look.

The tree is in full bloom, not only bursting with green but covered in flowers like little white kisses. Endless, countless flowers, light with spring’s sweet perfume, float off on a breeze so gentle it can’t be felt, but no matter how many drift away there are always more.

Through my own tears, I say, “This tree will always be blooming. No matter how bleak the winter, there will always be this one spot of beauty. There will always be a flower dancing on the wind, and who knows where they will land? In time, trees born of this tree will grow in every wood and their flowers will carpet the world. It is not the gift you wanted, I know, but it is the only gift I can give. And I thank you for your gift, though I wish you hadn’t had to give it.”

I step back and return through the woods. I don’t know how long they will stay there, standing in the blossoms, but it doesn’t matter; the tree will care for them until they are ready to leave.

My tea has gone cold, and I fill my kettle to make another, settling it on the stove. I stand alone in the quiet of my kitchen, leaning against the side as I wait, and look at my world.

Winter chill is soaked into the bones of my cottage, so heavy I can smell it. Bare trees surround it and everything is dull with shades of brown and grey. But I don’t mind; though my heart breaks to acknowledge it, I know now that one day this house will be surrounded by a bittersweet spring, each tree beautiful and fragrant, the only potential I could rescue from an awful situation.

My patch of winter will shrink and vanish beneath the grief of the world. But I will have given what gifts I can, and what comfort I can, and, more than that, I will have restored what potential I can. And who knows where that might lead us.