A thick grey stone wall separated the village of Telly Fenn from the wilderness. A narrow path led the way out of the village and melted into a crossroad, from which a crooked path strayed far into the dark forest.
The inhabitants of Telly Fenn were content to leave the village only if necessary. They were good and pious people, the whole lot of them.
Which was the very reason why Rowan Magpie was standing on top of the wall, trying to decide whether she should take a leap of faith onto the other side or not. A cold wind ruffled her raven hair; she shivered in her thin dress. She had never left the village, which seemed sad and grey to her.
Rowan Magpie did not belong to the good and pious people. She was too hungry for life, too sensitive, her arms were far too welcoming to be decent. Her heart was a crumpled thing. They called her a witch, much to her discomfort. The devil on her shoulder did not help either. He whispered sweet nothings into her ear, and she was only too willing to listen. His voice was warm and silky, and she longed to dive into the depths of his seductive words and forget about the things which had made her climb this wall in the first place.
She wanted to forget about him, her love whose name she had erased from her mind, but whose scent was still in her nose and filled her mind with memories of warm flesh, of embraces and kisses and arms wrapped around her, and nights full of wonders. She had covered his body with kisses and put rose petals over his eyelids to make him stay. She still felt his warmth, even though his words had long grown cold. Now, married to a decent woman, he wouldn’t even look at her anymore.
She wanted to forget about the stranger who had offered her comfort. The man with the honey-coloured eyes, who had softly spoken to her, who pulled her into his arms, whom she had allowed to take her against the pub’s outer wall like a piece of raw meat. Afterwards he had brushed a damp curl from her forehead and a tear from her cheek and told her she had beautiful eyes. And then he had left.
She wanted to forget the new life that had stirred inside her belly, and she wanted to forget how her mother had taken her to an angel maker, a woman with cold hands who had forced a poison down her throat to flush the unborn child out of Rowan’s body like a piece of waste.
She wanted to forget the damned power that erupted from her fingers sometimes, that the villagers called her Witch, called her evil, accused her of poisoning the hearts of good men.
”But you are,” whispered the devil. “You are a witch. Do you not dance beneath rhe moon? Do you not gather herbs for healing purposes? Do you not sing with the seasons and the wind?”
“I’m not a witch,” said Rowan.
“It’s not a bad thing, you know?” The devil played with her hair. He was a strange creature: Small, not exactly handsome, with obscene curls on the top of his head, out of which two small horns emerged. His naked skin was warm. Rowan knew she should have rejected him, but she was freezing. She craved warmth.
“I’m not a witch,” she insisted. “I just wanted to see the meadow…”
To her utter disappointment, the grass was no more greener on the other side of the wall. It was just as grey as in Telly Fenn. Hadn’t they told her that she’d find nothing but dismal sameness up here? Hadn’t they told her that all she needed could be found inside the village? She had refused to believe them. Her books had painted everything in beautiful colours, green instead of grey, and the books could not be full of lies. Somebody had written them once, and this wordsmith must have seen the beauties he described!
But there was nothing but the grey meadow, the black forest and the crossroad. The wind reached beneath Rowan’s clothes with icy fingers, beneath her flesh, beneath her very bones. It made her freeze from the inside.
She longed to dive into the shades of the forest and ask the trees for advice. She wanted to sink deep beneath the icy surface of the river to wash the pain away, to rip out that crumpled broken heart and leave it as an offering to the spirits of old. Because they were there. Rowen felt them and found them more real than the God her village people prayed to.
“See, I told you,” said the devil. “Witch. There is something darker in you. You need the wilderness, the magic, a shadow to contrast the artificial light of these people. – Oh, dear, no, don’t cry!”
He leaned in to wipe the tears from Rowan’s cheeks. “It’s all right, girl.”
“No, it’s not all right!” Her voice cracked. She hated crying. “Why does this damn thing still hurt after all this time?” She clutched her chest, her throbbing heart.
He cast her a look of honest surprise. “Well, because you’re alive, of course! Why else would it hurt so badly?”
“And why does it feel like I’m freezing to death from the inside?”
“Because melting always hurts.” He clumsily patted her shoulder with his four-fingered hand. “Because this powerful flame inside your chest has to fight her way through the ice.”
His touch was too kind. It only made her cry harder. She wanted to draw back, shy away from him, but he held her until there was no tear left to be cried. She felt empty. What was she doing here? Crying in the arms of the devil? Now she would certainly end up in hell!
“It’s not so bad there,” he said. “It is warm, actually.”
“Stop luring me!” Finally Rowan broke away.
“I’m not luring you.” He smirked. “You are luring yourself.”
“Piss off,” said Rowan.
”My, you’re brave to insult the Gods!” The devil chuckled and jumped off her shoulder, right onto the crossroad.
”You’re not a God, you are a demon!” Rowan crossed her arms.
”I am both.” The devil smiled a broad smile that made his eyes shine like dark green moss.
Rowan frowned. She had expected the devil to have eyes made of hellfire.
He spread his arms. “It’s warm in my hell. I like it. My hell could be your heaven.”
Rowan clenched her teeth. After all the damage, she still longed for warmth.
“Warm?” she asked quietly.
“Oh, not the cheap warmth of your peoples’ hell fire, mind you!” He shuffled back to her. “Real warmth. The one that comes from here.” He placed his hand on her breast. An inappropriate touch. Rowan was supposed to jerk back, but his hand was warm. It spread comfort. It ignited a flame in her fingertips, that old power she had tried to kill.
“They told you bad people go to hell, mh?” His fingers traced the seam of her blouse.
She nodded silently.
“Let me tell you a secret,” he whispers. His horns gleam in the sunlight as he smiles. “Their hell is our heaven. Their hell is where the brave people and the freethinkers go. The witches they used to burn. You know where your hell is?” He pointed towards Telly Fenn with his thumb. “Right there.”
He took her hand. “Come with me, child. You wanted to see the meadow and the forest, but you cannot explore them if you keep standing on this wall.”
So Rowan took a leap of faith. The grey meadow was soft beneath her bare feet. She followed the devil onto the crossroad. He gently led her, but when he started to walk onto the crooked path, she froze. She would not follow the devil down a crooked path! There was too much symbolism!
“Come, child, you want to,” he purred. “That’s why you came here, didn’t you?”
“No!” But the longing to walk that crooked path was so strong it scared her. It was so alluring…
“Come with me. One step. Maybe another one. You can still go back.”
But as she took the first step down the crooked path, she knew that she would not come back. She felt something dark stirring inside her chest. The old power her mother had condemned… One step. Another one. She started running down the crooked path, with the devil by her side, and with every step the grey meadow lightened into a brilliant green. The meadow was wide, full of pink clover, bright yellow dandelion and evening primrose. It was so warm down here, as if the other side of the wall was a whole new country. It was beautiful. The rich warm breeze smelled of summer herbs and autumn leaves, and as the sun set, the familiar magic of the night rose from its bed in the forest.
Rowan felt it in the palm of her hands, in the soles of her feet. Her skin tingled.
“It feels good,” she mumbled. “I missed it…”
The devil examined the lines on her hands. “You have strong magic in you, witch girl. The wall of Telly Fenn has locked it inside you, but here it is! Let it out.”
He kissed her fingertips, and with his kiss, he unleashed something inside her – something powerful, something frightening. But now she was too curious to be ashamed. She would walk this crooked path until the very end, and if it was the last thing she did in her life!
The night covered the world in her velvet cloak. Rowan undressed herself and lowered herself onto the soft grass beneath a clear and starry summer sky, but sleep would not come. She felt the old magic creep inside her.
She was in the wilderness, and the wilderness was in her. Every scar burst open. Every pain and every joy that had ever touched her heart danced beneath the Cheshire grin of the moon. Rowen lost herself somewhere between light and darkness, pain and pleasure, drowning and gasping for air, dancing, singing and screaming, fire and ashes, burning down and spreading fiery wings, crying and laughing, despair and hope and more despair and glimpses of more hope, fear and courage, living and dying. She burned before she died, and afterwards the wind stirred her ashes and made her dance once more. Every emotion was violently ripped out of her and pushed back in again with an untamable force. Every truth she knew was torn apart, smashed to the ground and glued back together in a whole new way. And she found that everything was still there – but the fear was gone.
When she woke up in the pale light of morning, she was alone. The devil was gone, and he had taken her loneliness with her as an offering. Rowan war aware of every scar on her heart and body, but she was not entirely sure whether she had indeed come here with the devil. She was not even sure if that being had been the devil or something else. The devil did not seduce you to live, did he? Who could tell what he had been? Spirit, God, dream, devil, demon, imagination, fantasy, necessary? All she knew was that no force on this earth would chase her up the crooked path again to return to Telly Fenn. No one would make her climb back over the wall.
Everything was still there. Nothing was lost, but everything had changed. Rowan was alone in the wilderness, and the wilderness was in her, and she had never felt so alive.
Something stronger than herself soared in her body. It was a magic she had never allowed to roam freely, and now it spread its wings.
”Witch,” she whispered and touched her heart.
Bio: Isabel Schwaak, born 1990, is an English Literature student from Germany. When she’s not busy writing any sort of texts or making up stories in her head, she can be found singing to plants and dancing in the forest. Up till now, two of her short stories have been published in German anthologies.