Death in the Woods

Peter Markus


We must burn the witch down to ash. This the boys know and this is what they say in their sleep and they say it when at dawn they wake and when at night they walk through the woods they say these words too: we must burn the witch down to ash. We must hang her from a tree and light her up to flame. We will stomp down on and dance on the ash that the witch is burned down to be. We will kick and ground and spread the ash so that it gets mixed in with the dirt that the witch will come to be. We will say, We made her be like this, we made the witch be dead, though the truth of it is, the witch in these woods is not dead. The witch has more lives than the sky. Each time she was burned at the stake or hung from a tree or hit with a stone to the side of her witch head, a new witch would rise from the ash, would loop the rope from round her witch neck and climb back down to the ground, would wipe the blood from off of her head and the next day there was no blood where blood should have been, there was no bump on the head where a bump on the head should have been, there was no sign of death where death had just been. The burned up witch would burn down to coals and smoke and ash and then up from the ash that the coals would burn down to the witch would rise up as black smoke and a witch born of this smoke would take the form and shape of skin on bone and a new witch would be the witch once more. Then once more the once more witch would take her place back in the woods, she would go back to her witch house in the woods, and all the trees and the leafs in the trees (more leafs than there are stars in the sky) wished they could find a place to run to and hide. But a tree and the leafs on a tree can't run and hide so all the trees and all the leafs on all the woods’ trees had to stay where they were and watch the witch be a witch in a house in a woods and do her witch in a woods things with no one who would dare stop her. No one but for the boys who hid in the dark and made like two trees and who brought stones to her witch head and flame to her skin and bones, they were the ones who dared, who stood up to her and to her witch ways, for there was no one else in these woods who would dare do it, they had it set hard in their own boy heads, you could see it in their dirt eyes: that one of these days, just wait and see, death in these woods for this witch would be here to stay. The voice in their boy heads said it to them like this. We must burn the witch down to ash. We must make the witch a witch no more. Take witch up like so. Hold witch by head to dirt of ground. Cut witch head off at witch neck. Put witch head on end of branch from tree made to be a stake. Take stake and run through woods with head of witch staked to it. Stop three times and dance with witch head raised to be close to sky. Watch leafs of trees—more leafs than there are stars in the sky—move and shake to the song that they, boys, sing when they stop three times to dance, dance, dance. Take witch head back to house in woods with Sis and girl with no tongue down in mouth to make words with. Cut tongue of witch out. Put witch tongue in pot to make witch tongue soup. Let girl with no tongue in mouth spoon witch tongue soup up to girl mouth. The eyes of witch, dig eyes out with spoon and use eyes as bait to fish up fish out of lake. Eat the fish that take bait in fish mouth. Take what is left of witch head and dig hole and let worms go at the parts of witch head—skin, hair, nose, lips, ears—till there is just bone of witch that is all that is left. The head of witch, with no skin or hair on it, walk it through the woods. In holes where witch eyes used to be, a bird with one wing calls this home.