"Elements of magic and familiar folktales combine to create a memorable and sometimes surprising fantasy as well as a clever literary tale," writes children's librarian Maria Salvadore when including The Witch's Boy in her roundup of the best books for kids this holiday season.
Once upon a time, in a faraway country, there was a woman who lived by herself in the middle of a great forest. She had a little cottage and kept a garden and a large gray cat. In appearance, she was neither fair nor ugly, neither young nor old, and dressed herself modestly in the colors of stones. None of the folk who lived nearby (not the oldest of them) could tell how long she had dwelt in that place.
One spring morning, the woman set off to collect some plants she needed. As she glided silently along, she studied a list of these she had made, for she tended to be absent-minded about small things. She passed the old oak tree, lightning-killed and half-hollow, where the local people were accustomed to leave things for her, and there she heard an odd little cry. She stopped and looked, and saw that in the hollow was a wicker basket. Have they left me a piglet? she wondered. But when she came closer, the basket shook and she heard the unmistakable cry of a new baby. There was a note in a crude hand tied to the handle of the basket, which read:
The Devil's child
For the Devil's wife
"Well, well," said she to herself, "let us see what some rude person has left." She opened the basket and looked in. "Oh, my!" she said aloud, as she beheld the ugliest baby boy that she, and perhaps anybody, had ever seen. He had a piggish snout and close-set eyes of a peculiar yellowish color. His mouth, wide and floppy, was already full of square little grinders. He was covered in coarse dark hair resembling the bristles of a hog, and his ears were huge and pointed, like a bat's. His body was also oddly shaped, like a sack of stones, and his feet were far too large. Of all his features, his hands alone might be called good, their long delicate fingers flexing as the stubby arms waved.
He seemed healthy enough, and when the woman reached down and touched his cheek with the backs of her fingers, he gave a lusty cry and rooted with his mouth for her thumb.
"Hungry, are you?" she asked. "Don't you know that witches are supposed to eat babies, not feed them?" The ugly baby gurgled and pushed harder against her hand. His yellow eyes looked hungrily into her gray ones. She felt a magic older than even her own flicker between them, and it startled her.
"What am I thinking of?" she said. "How could I keep a baby? I have never been sentimental before." She addressed the baby. "You will make a meal for the lynx or the gray wolf. This is your fate." She moved her hand away and turned to go, but the little thing, feeling the withdrawal of the woman's warm presence, began to whimper again. In an instant, almost without thought, she had drawn the baby into her arms, and pressed him to her bosom. The baby gurgled and stared with mindless intensity into her eyes.
"Ah, well," she sighed, "it seems we are stuck together, little lump. I have no idea how we shall get on or what will become of you. I have never heard of a woman of my sisterhood rearing a child before, but lately the world is full of new and disturbing things—and perhaps this is one of them, dropped into my very lap. Perhaps we shall both learn something from it."
She placed the child carefully back in his basket, and carried it back the way she had come. The few people she passed on her way all nodded cautiously at her and made room on the path, but none attempted to start a conversation, as they might have with almost anyone else. The people of that neighborhood were woodcutters, trappers, charcoal burners, and a few farmers who worked the small clearings. They thought her strange; she had the disconcerting habit of appearing without warning around the turn of a path; or you might be working and suddenly be aware of her presence in a corner of your sight, like smoke from a distant fire.
Tongues wagged about her, of course, as they will in a small place. One fellow said he saw her pop out of a cleft in the rock in broad day, and when he looked for a passage or cave had found nothing but the smooth black stone. Another said she had seen her walking with the shy roe deer often and once with an enormous brown bear, chatting away and pausing as if to listen, as if she were conversing about the weather or the year's chestnuts. The local boys dared each other to go down the path to her cottage and peer in the windows at night. None ever did, although they lied a good deal about it. Some of the older women brought little baskets of fruit or crocks of cream or preserves and left them in the hollow tree by the head of her path, where today someone had left a more strange and less welcome gift.
They made up stories about the woman to pass the evenings and frighten the children into bed: how she could change her shape, becoming a raven or a red fox, how she could sour milk with a glance or spoil traps, what she did in her cottage to little boys and girls who did not mind their elders. These tales grew richer with the years; in the end, they called her a witch.
Such things used to happen often to women living alone and mostly no harm done, although when some old goose is treated as a witch and given little presents, she may get it into her head that she really has the power to make rain drop from the sky or two people fall in love, and then she might find herself in trouble.
But this particular woman was a real witch.
Reprinted with permission from the publisher.