A Witch By Any Other Name

Reading Time: 4 minutes
(Image created by Anais Aguilera using Firefly.)

They call me a soul-stealer. A corrupter of children. A sorceress. A monster.

They exaggerate it like bedtime stories, a fable to twist me into a malevolent force, a demon shadow in the forest that will come for the kiddies who wander too far, who question too much, who want things they shouldn’t. They whisper it like rumors between old wives: in confidence, in shock, in need. They complain over it, bawdy and slurred, between men and their beers—the secret that everyone knows. All of it doing my work for me, letting everyone from cottage to castle-side know I’m here, and what I can do.

And they come. I’ve never stolen a single one. Never tricked, lured, enchanted, or seduced. Yet, they come.

They come with feeble knocks: exhausted, scared, and doubtful. Or they come with shouting pleas, sure they are being chased. Or they stand by the bark of a tree and look, look, look, before turning back.

Sometimes they come on dares. Throw a rock through the window! Catch a glimpse of the witch! Steal cursed weeds from her garden! Sometimes those same hooligans return—weeks, months, years later—bashful, looking for help. I’ve never turned away a single one.

They come with what few possessions they have in a sack, or they come with nothing but the clothes on their back. Sometimes they come without even their shoes—having been run out of their home, their village, their life without a chance to put them on. Some never had shoes in the first place. They come with bruises, split lips, and broken spirits. They come with grand plans, an escape turned into an adventure, with money saved, and maps sketched out to go to the city (they heard it’s different there); to go down south where no one knows them; to make it out to the coast because the ocean sounded like another word for freedom.

They come alone, planting their feet on my doorstep, voices betraying a tremble. Sometimes they come with their hair already cropped or grown long, with a dress exchanged for a tunic, or the other way around. Some are still in their everyday disguises. When I ask their name, they’ll hesitate or throw out the mismatched thing their parents gave them. When I say, “Your real name,” there is sometimes a gasp, sometimes tears, or sometimes a gleam behind their eyes as they seem to glow from within. All of it evidence of the precious hidden truth finally cracking through, pleased and terrified to be seen.

They come in pairs, fingers weaved together, bold and defiant. A rebellion forged through heartache. Boy and boy. Girl and girl. Love is such a thing to be proud of even in a world that thinks evening should only be paired with day. Two lovely midnights or two sunny afternoons are just as perfectly complementary.

Or they come as two and leave as one. A mother secreting away a child. Friend helping friend. Or a pact that breaks at the crossroads of the familiar past and the wide-open future. They come with a child in their belly, only a child themselves, not knowing how it happened, or knowing too well. Afraid of a future of shame, of hunger, of being trapped with the demon who did it to them. Being afraid of a future they didn’t want.

They leave with potions. Potions that will set their womb free. With potions that will keep it that way. Potions that will help them grow a beard. That will steady their nerves. That will lighten their voice.

They leave with amulets. Amulets that show them a path through the forest only they can see. That will make any angry fist thrown at them glance away. That will let them know their lover who has the second of the pair is safe and thriving no matter the distance.

They leave with a few coins when I can spare them. A full belly even when I can’t. Wrists wrapped, bruises poulticed. They leave with a new pair of shoes, a disguise, a plan.

They leave with names. Of the street in the city with couples all like them. Of a captain at the harbor ports who has their own mismatched crew and will call you any name you tell them to. Of inns along their way where no one will bother them if they mention me.

They leave with confidence. A promise that I’ll keep their secrets, cover their tracks, and never leak a clue.

In the town, there will be wails. In the fields, shouting. Anger in the barroom. I’ve had a few errant drunks and half-ordered mobs come my way. But I’m still here. Of this they don’t lie: the forest is mine, and I master its darkness. Still, the whispers will hiss, the rumors will grow, and the legends and name-calling will continue to twist.

They call me a soul-stealer. A corrupter of children. A monster. Because I do for their children what they can’t. Because I love their children—the ones who question, who wander, who want—enough to help them when they won’t.


Edited by a Fallon Clark and Sophie Gorjance.

Margery Bayne is a librarian by day and writer by night. Based in Baltimore, Maryland, she crafts speculative and literary short stories while nurturing novelist aspirations. Armed with a Susquehanna University BA in Creative Writing and a University of Maryland Masters of Library Science, she shares her weekly musings on short stories at The Writing Cooperative on Medium as @margerybayne. In 2022, she published her first book Object Impermanence: Weird and Fantastic Stories which is available for purchase on Amazon. When she's not lost in books, she's chasing miles, folding origami, and embracing her cool aunt status. Explore more about her and her writing at www.margerybayne.com.