In a small hamlet on the outskirts of the kingdom, there lived a boy without a voice. He could hear it inside of himself, echoing in his mind, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out were ice crystals. In his presence, people felt an awful chill and drew away. And so the boy lived in a circle of solitude, surrounded by others but always at a distance.
One day, the boy worked up the courage to go see the witch who lived on the edge of the village. He’d seen her from afar, riding her bicycle with its wide handlebars, but she never seemed to him quite what a witch should be. She wore pointy-edged glasses with green rims and favored gold earrings that brushed the tops of her shoulders.
Shivering slightly, he stepped up to her cottage door and knocked three times. After a long moment, the door jerked open and the witch peered out into the afternoon sunlight. He was surprised to find, up close, that she wasn’t as old as he’d thought she was. There were a few lines around her eyes, but her hair was blond and wavy, with only a few streaks of gray.
She looked him over. “And who are you?” she asked, in the voice of someone who’d realized they weren’t looking at a paying customer.
The boy opened his mouth and fogged her glasses with frost.
“Well.” The witch removed her green-rimmed glasses and examined them, front and back. “Isn’t that interesting.” She peered at him. “Can’t you speak?”
He pressed his lips together and shook his head. She still hadn’t opened the door any wider than her shoulders.
The witch was a practical woman, and she knew what she needed today was to sell a few more bottles of love potion, perhaps a hex or two, just to make ends meet. She chewed on the inside of her cheek. On the other hand, she had no other appointments this afternoon and the hours until evening promised to stretch quiet and long. She opened the door wider. “Come in,” she said.
The cottage was just one room, with a narrow little bed wedged into the corner under the window. Most of the floor space was taken up by a scarred wooden table where the witch compiled her potions. The boy looked up at the assortment of strange items hanging from the ceiling. But before he could look for too long, the witch pulled him by his shoulders and made him face her.
“Open your mouth,” she said. “I want to see what’s down your throat.”
The boy opened his mouth, and the witch moved closer, shivering in the breeze that drifted out from between his teeth. She stared down his dark throat and into the mysteries of his belly. There was something floating down there, pale and massive and ridged with shadows.
“An iceberg,” she said softly. Her teeth were chattering. Standing this close to the boy was not a pleasant experience. She’d seen him from afar, she realized now, when he was out working in the fields. The other children kept their distance from him, but she’d always thought it was because of his dark hair, his skin that marked him as a foreigner.
“Now how did that get in there?” she asked him.
The boy closed his mouth and shook his head. He did not remember, ever, anything like an iceberg entering his body. But for as long as he could remember, he’d felt a cool heaviness in his middle. He pressed a hand against his belly. He wanted to ask the witch if she could help him, but when he tried to speak, all that came out was a wintry mist.
The witch pursed her lips, which she carefully reddened each day with berry juice. “I don’t suppose you have any money.”
The boy shook his head. He had nothing. Not a mother or a father or a coin to call his own.
The witch tapped a finger against her lips. Apart from the chill surrounding him, the boy seemed healthy enough. She tried to gauge his age. Eleven, maybe? She was not good with children and their ages. His pitch-black eyes followed her every movement and seemed to see farther than they should.
She sat down on her rickety, three-legged stool and frowned. “Well, I don’t know.” She had never seen a case like his before. Truth be told, she was not so much in the line of healing people these days. She was more in the line of reading tarot cards and dispensing bogus potions. The love philter that was her main moneymaker was merely apple cider pepped up with an infusion of ginger.
Now she had to struggle mightily to remember her old training. “Let’s see. You could swallow a drop of liquid fire.”
The boy’s eyes grew huge.
“But that seems as likely to kill you as cure you,” she continued, her eyes focused on the middle distance. “I could give you a tea made of dragon’s tails. Although …” She chewed on her lower lip. “That’s really more for indigestion.” She pondered a while longer.
Of course, she knew how she could solve his problem straightaway—Esmerelda. But still, the witch hesitated. Esmeralda was her most precious possession, and she was not to be used lightly. The witch stared at the boy. There was nothing so very wrong with him. He looked well fed and perfectly able to fend for himself. Still, she was struck by the look in his eyes—that of a prisoner who had spent long years reading books he couldn’t discuss with anyone.
Well, it couldn’t hurt to just ask Esmerelda. The witch pushed herself to her feet and turned to her cupboard. On the top shelf, away from all the other spell ingredients, was a wide glass jar with holes punched in its top. Inside sat a little creature that looked something like a firefly. Its back end glowed a cool, mesmerizing green.
The witch stood on tiptoe and took the jar down, holding it in front of her face. “Esme,” she said softly.
Inside the jar, the creature batted its one heavily lashed eye.
The witch had not used the firefly except for that one time, almost a decade ago. One could not use a creature like Esme lightly. Still, the witch found it comforting to have a creature of such power in her possession. A backup plan in case of emergencies. Each day, she fed Esme peach nectar, and lately she’d taken to chatting with her when she was lonely, which was most of the time.
Gently, the witch unscrewed the top of the jar. She tilted it and shook Esmerelda out into her hand, where the firefly sat, no bigger than a bottle cap. Her wings fluttered. The witch thought of the first and only time she had called on Esme’s aid, and her nerve endings tingled. Her fingers convulsed around the firefly, as if she wanted to cup her hands closed and put Esme back in her jar. The witch knew the rules. Esme could only be used three times in a witch’s lifetime, which meant the witch could use her only twice more. Once, if she decided to help the boy now.
“It’s a tricky case, Esme,” the witch said. Then she turned so that Esme could see the boy. His ripped shirt and calloused hands.
Esmerelda waved her antenna around like an orchestra conductor.
The witch frowned. “You can’t be serious.”
Esme’s antenna danced and dipped. Insistent.
Reluctantly, the witch turned to the boy. With effort, she straightened her fingers and held out the firefly on her palm. “Swallow,” she told the boy.
He stepped backwards and shook his head.
“Go on, boy. Do you want to get rid of the iceberg or not?” Now that she had made up her mind to help him, she was in no mood for coddling.
There was a long silence. Finally, with a shaky hand, the boy reached out and plucked Esme out of the witch’s palm with his thumb and forefinger. And then, slowly, very slowly, the boy placed Esmerelda in his mouth and swallowed.
A strange expression passed over his face, as if he’d just eaten a firecracker.
“What’s happening?” the witch said, leaning forward. “How do you feel?”
The boy opened his mouth and expelled a flurry of snowflakes that were tinted acid green.
The witch adjusted her glasses and peered at the boy’s stomach, seeing through his flesh into the workings of his belly. There the iceberg sat, as majestic and forlorn as a tanker on the open sea, its sides slick and translucent. Esmerelda was perched on top of it, her delicate, furred feelers resting on either side of its peak. Then Esme opened her wings, and green light poured out of her body, filling the boy’s stomach with warm, steamy air.
The boy made a helpless sound. Inside his stomach, the iceberg was melting. He felt a softness there that was strange and yet distantly familiar. He remembered the touch of a woman’s hand as it cupped the back of his head. A thin trickle—the color of liquefied spinach—ran out of the corner of his eye, slid down his cheek, and stained the front of his shirt.
“It’s working!” the witch said. Then she gripped her hands together. “Isn’t it?”
The boy didn’t look so good. His skin had turned an ashy gray-green, and his stomach had begun pulsating like he was having some kind of localized seizure.
The witch grabbed his shoulders and gave him a little shake. “Speak, boy. What’s happening?”
The boy’s lips parted, and he began to cough. He hacked several times, and on his last heave, he spat up Esme, who hurled out of his mouth and tumbled onto the gritty floor. Quickly, the witch scooped up the firefly and deposited her on the tabletop, where Esme began to fluff out her wings and groom her face.
The boy collapsed on the ground. A strange sound came out of his mouth, like he was trying to draw in breath through a pinhole.
The witch fell to her knees, her earrings jingling as she bent over his body. “Come on, boy,” she whispered. “Stay with me. Keep looking at me.”
The boy closed his eyes. And then, without so much as a whimper, he ceased to breathe.
The witch spun to face Esme. “What have you done? You’ve killed him.”
Esmerelda blinked her one glittering eye, as if to say, “What are you looking at me for?”
The witch placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder, squeezing his still-warm flesh. His hair was gilded with dust from the none-too-clean floor, and it made him look old before his time. “No,” she whispered.
He’d been brave, this boy, to swallow the firefly, to take such a risk. Why had she let him do it? She gripped the rough material of his shirt in her fist. It had been because, she realized, she’d recognized the desperation in his eyes. As a young girl, she’d grown up in a stone house with a glassy-eyed mother. By the end of those years, she would’ve clawed her way through the stone walls to get free.
The witch let go of the boy’s shirt and moved her hand to his cheek, which was warm and damp. The life had not completely left him. Not yet. She positioned herself above him and pushed both hands, hard, down on his sternum. The boy grunted, and his mouth opened. Steam rose from his mouth and formed shadowy shapes in the room.
The witch sat back on her heels and watched the gray forms shift and twist, making strange landscapes in the air. For a moment, she thought she saw an ocean under a stormy sky. A troubled ship at sea. Then she blinked rapidly. The boy was still not breathing.
“Oh, Esme.” The witch pressed her hands to mouth. She had killed him. She had tried to help him and she’d killed him.
She heard a buzzing near her right ear as Esme flew past her and came to rest on the boy’s forehead. Esme walked in an elaborate pattern before coming to rest between the boy’s eyebrows.
The witch flapped her hands at Esme. “Get away.” She didn’t like the way Esme looked on the boy’s face, the way he lay so still and silent under her feet.
But Esme was undeterred. She walked down the boy’s nose and across the divide of his lips, making her way to his chest and stopping on the second button of his shirt. She stood just over his heart and tapped a front leg on his chest.
The witch, wiping at her eyes, adjusted her glasses and leaned forward, peering into the boy’s chest. There, his heart sat, dark and brittle, like a cookie that been left in the oven too long. The iceberg had kept his heart frozen for so long that it had shrunk and shriveled. Now that the boy’s blood had been warmed and had room to move, it did not know how.
“Well, what now?” she asked Esme. In her mind, she ran through all the heart-healing spells she had ever learned, but they were all for bleeding hearts, broken hearts, jealous hearts. She did not know a spell for a charcoal heart.
Esme lifted off from the boy’s chest, her wings a blur, and alighted on the witch’s cupboard, a massive thing with many drawers and shelves. She scuttled along the edge of the cupboard door and slipped in through a narrow crack. The witch scrambled to her feet and followed her, flinging open the cupboard doors to see where the firefly had gone.
The shelves were all shadow and quiet. They smelled of cloves and garlic and something faintly rotten. The witch couldn’t remember half the things she’d stashed in here—odd-colored mushrooms, scrapings from goats’ hooves, dried lizard tongues.
“Esme,” the witch hissed. When the firefly did not appear, she felt a tremor of panic in the back of her throat. She’d thought Esme was going to help her, but the firefly might’ve taken it in her head to do something else entirely. To escape, perhaps, at long last, the confines of her existence in the jar.
Then the witch saw a flicker of movement behind a bowl filled with scorpion tails. “Esme?”
One of Esme’s feelers wriggled out from behind the bowl. She was trying to drag something too heavy for her small body, so she was having to back her way through the cupboard, hauling whatever-it-was in her front two feelers as her back legs gripped and strained.
“Here, let me,” the witch said, inserting one of her long fingernails between Esme and the object. The witch lifted an object the size and shape of a pea, with the texture of crumpled aluminum foil. Esme scuttled up the witch’s thumb and balanced on one of her knuckles, from which vantage point she admired her find.
The witch examined the rock. “Pyrite,” she murmured. She could see tiny fragments of her reflection in its angles. Strange, though—she did not see herself as she was now. Instead, she saw the girl she’d been all those years ago: sad eyes, freckled skin.
She clasped the rock in her fist. Pyrite was a tricky thing. Esme might’ve chosen something more reliable. Still, it was the only idea they had, and already two minutes had passed since the boy had last drawn a breath.
The witch went back to the boy and knelt beside him. Then she placed the pyrite on his breastbone and cupped her palms over it. She spoke the words, hardly knowing how she remembered them. A bargain spell. It was the old magic, which never came for free but required something of your heart’s blood. As she chanted, she imagined the boy’s veins, rigid as dry wood. She imagined blood pulsing through them again, waking up his wizened heart. And as she spoke, she wove herself into the spell, as she’d known she would have to. This was the requirement of the bargain spell.
If the boy was healed, she would stop selling her apple cider potion, stop pretending that what she did for the villagers was magic of any kind. She would go back to her mother’s cold house and un-work the curse she had cast as she left that place. The witch felt a feathery brush across her skin as Esme crept up her arm and came to rest on her shoulder.
It was not enough. Promises had to come in threes. But what else could the witch sacrifice? What else was precious to her? She had little enough in this world.
Esme’s wings hummed in her ear.
The witch’s eyes stung. No, not that.
But Esme was right. It was the only thing left to give.
She would let Esme go, the witch promised, even as the thought made her chest constrict. She would let the firefly free. All this for the boy’s life.
The witch’s fingertips became hot, but still she didn’t allow herself to open her eyes. Esme’s wings had quieted, and the witch heard her own breath, ragged and shallow, in the empty room. The bargain had been struck.
The witch opened her eyes. Color had returned to the boy’s skin. His skinny chest rose and fell. She slumped forward and sighed. After a moment, she squeezed his arm. “Boy?”
His dark eyelashes painted shadows on his cheek. One eye fluttered open, then both. Two green eyes stared back at her, the color of freshly picked moss.
“Can you speak?”
The boy opened his mouth, but what came out wasn’t words, just a plume of smoke. The witch looked down at the boy’s chest. The little piece of pyrite had disappeared, and there was a small scar just below his sternum, the size and shape of the jagged pebble. The iceberg had melted, but the boy still had no voice.
Tears pricked at the edges of the witch’s eyes. In her hurry to save his life, she hadn’t bothered to ask for what he wanted most.
The boy struggled up to a sitting position, looking around him as if he’d never seen the cottage before.
“Esme?” the witch asked, looking around for the firefly.
But Esme was gone. Too late, the witch saw that she’d left the small window in the cottage open and the firefly was now gliding off into the purple evening sky.
The witch felt a cracking in her chest. This was her payment; it had already come due. And Esme’s departure was only the first loss. The other promises, she knew, she was bound to keep. The boy’s life depended on it.
The witch was suddenly sorry she’d ever clapped eyes on the boy. She’d given up so much—and for what? For him to have the life he’d had before he knocked on her door? She’d done nothing for him except given him back his half-self.
She sat back on the stool, resting her head in her hands. She was not a good witch. She’d always known that, even as her obsession with magic had propelled her out of her mother’s house and into faraway realms. She had only a small buzz of wizardry in her fingertips. She’d been destined for a small life, small miracles.
What on earth had possessed her to strike a bargain spell? All her life, she had kept herself wise, kept herself safe. She’d taken few risks, running the kind of witchcraft business that offered regular returns without much effort. Without friends, without family, without a man to call her own, she had watched village life go by in front of her like film on a slightly-too-fast reel. She had grown used to that space she occupied on the edge of things. The pain that struck down others—the baker’s pregnant daughter, the fletcher’s wild wife—it didn’t touch her in her cottage on the edge of the woods.
But now she would have to go home, to the source of all that had driven her out into the world in the first place. She would have to unreel the thread of bitterness that was wound tight in her chest.
A hot tear worked its way through her fingers and dropped onto the floor, where it quivered before melting into the dust. Then she felt a hand press against her shoulder. The boy, so limp and lifeless on the floor just moments before, was standing beside her. She gripped his warm fingers in her own, then removed his hand from where it lay.
“I have to go,” she said, lifting her head. “A journey.” She wasn’t sure how much he understood.
He nodded. Turning, he went to the coat stand and took down her cloak, the one he’d seen her wear as she walked through the village on cold evenings. Once, he could see, it had been a rich black velvet. Now, though, its hem was frayed and splashed with mud, the material dingy and gray.
The witch took it from the boy’s outstretched hand and swung it across her shoulders. Its weight reminded her of who she was: poor and shabby and past her prime.
She did not want to go home. She wished she could turn herself into a firefly, free to lift off from any windowsill and float away on a breeze.
She went to the door and pulled it open, revealing a sky streaked with lavender clouds. It would have to be now. She would go now, before she lost her nerve and with it the only good she had worked today. She turned to look at the boy. “Go home,” she said.
The boy shook his head. A wisp of black smoke escaped the corner of his mouth and spiraled toward the ceiling.
The sight of it made the witch clench her teeth. “There’s somewhere I have to go. Somewhere far away.”
Still, the boy did not move.
“What’s the matter with you? Haven’t you been through enough? Do you want to wait around for me to ruin something else?”
He gestured at himself and then to her. The meaning was unclear, but he might’ve been trying to say I go with you.
The witch threw her hands up. “What’s wrong with you? You came to me for help and I nearly killed you. You were better off before. At least then, you didn’t puff like a chimney.” She let out a tired sigh. “Go home, child.”
But the boy would not move. He opened his mouth and this time a stream of velvety smoke flooded out. It filled the small room, and in its billows, pictures formed, wobbling like photographs immersed in fixer. The witch saw a woman with dark hair and a face so like the boy’s that the witch knew at once it had to be his mother. She saw a wrecked boat on a beach that was sprinkled with snow. An infant squalling on its back in the sand. The dark-haired woman took the infant in her arms and carried it away from the beach.
Then the pictures in the smoke swayed and changed. The witch saw the mother trudging along with a small group of people, their heads bent low. They looked like they’d been walking for days. Finally, the mother’s legs gave way and she stumbled and fell on the side of the road. The others watched, silent, as she drew her last breaths. Then a large, stone-faced man, the one who seemed to be their leader, lifted the baby out of her arms and tucked it into his rucksack. There was no question of burying the woman. The ground was frozen solid. Quietly, eyes on the ground, the survivors walked on.
The man carried the infant in his rucksack for miles until they reached a small village, the puffs of smoke from the squat chimneys the most welcoming sight they’d seen in weeks. They stared hungrily at the small cottages, with their warm windows and warm cooking smells, until men emerged from the cottages with shotguns and lifted them to their shoulders, aiming at the travelers.
The tattered group looked to the man with the rucksack for guidance. Slowly, he pulled the pack off his back. He approached the entrance to the village and laid his rucksack down on the ground. Then, slowly, he backed away. After a long moment, he signaled for the others to follow him. Then he walked back to the road and began to make a large circuit around the village, to where the road through the forest began again.
The rucksack lay on the threshold of the village. The infant’s soft tuft of hair poked out from the opening at its top.
On an impulse, the witch stretched out her hand to touch that wisp of hair, but as soon as her fingers touched the smoke, the images twisted and shifted.
Now she saw the boy as an older child, only a few years younger than he was now. He was working in the fields with the other children, the back of his neck darkened by the sun. His was the only black head among the fair-haired children. The other children laughed and talked to each other, but when the boy opened his mouth, the frost that came out killed the ears of corn and the children shouted and jeered at him. So he moved away to work his own row, careful to keep his mouth closed. Even so, the stalks of corn wilted at his nearness.
When the bell rang at the end of the day, the other children ran off to their dinners, but the boy stayed in the fields, watching the sun cast long shadows across the fields. He peeled a husk off an ear of corn and breathed on it, watching clusters of frost gather on its surface. Then he held the husk to his heart, the feel of it making his eyes close. From far away, someone called his name—a name that had never sounded like it belonged him. He didn’t move. He waited for the ice to melt against his heart. When finally he turned back toward the village, there was a dark stain over his heart.
The witch slumped back against her cottage doorway. The smoke from the boy’s mouth had dissolved, leaving a fine dust over the threshold. Kneeling down, she pressed her hand against the floor, and when she pulled it away, her palm was coated in gold. She stood up and quickly brushed her hands against each other, her stomach trembling. This was a kind of magic she had never seen worked before.
The boy reached out and worked his fingers inside her left hand. Then he stepped forward, tugging gently at her arm. His meaning was now clear. I go with you. Or, more exactly: We go together.
The witch turned back to look at the cottage which had held her safe these past years. For a moment, she wanted only to go back inside, or to yank her hand away from the boy and head into the forest alone. Either would be safer paths than the one she was about to take now. The witch turned to face the violet sky. She thought of stones and snow and all the years she’d walked alone. Then she squeezed the boy’s hand in her own. Taking a step forward, she pulled him after her. They walked like that toward the edge of the forest, and as they reached its shadows, the boy clenched her hand tighter and she felt the grit of gold dust between their palms.
Jaime deBlanc-Knowles is a writer and teacher living in Austin, Texas. Her work has been published in Catapult, Post Road, and Meridian, and she has been the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and a Lighthouse Works Fellowship. She’s currently at work on a collection of short stories that engage with fairy tales and myths.