This, Margaret thought, was the perfect night for a walk in the forest. How fortunate that she had already agreed to be there.
Goody Price had died earlier that night, strangled by the rope as she protested her innocence and spat curses at those who sentenced her. Margaret had to laugh at the idea that people she used to think of as smart could believe anyone as dumb as the schoolteacher was a witch. Surely, a real witch could have used her powers to avoid the painful experience of hanging, or the posthumous insult of having her flesh slowly turned into nothing but burnt meat. Goody Price hadn’t even been smart enough to snap her neck rather than suffocate.
Once she felt certain that she was alone, Margaret slung her bag over her shoulder and crept out to the forest on the edge of town. Nobody paid much attention to orphans, and she knew better than most how to avoid detection. It had become a particularly useful skill of late.
The noise from the woods seemed incidental when it started. Whatever it was moved through the foliage at a slow pace, but not so slowly that Margaret didn’t notice it. She gave the whistle that always served as a signal, and the form in the bushes came closer. From what she could tell of its size and movement, it could have been any animal, and its eyes glowed in the darkness.
Margaret checked her surroundings, making sure she was deep enough into the forest that nobody on patrol would see her, and that none of the other children had seen her and tried to follow. “I come alone,” she said, in a voice just above a whisper. “I have brought what I promised.”
She whistled again, and the animal emerged from the bushes, revealing itself as a large fox. The animal’s fur was red around the legs and underbelly, with silver atop its head and along its back, and a black tail ending in a white tip. The fox walked up to Margaret and sat still, wrapping its tail around its paws and scanning the forest from side to side.
“Here it is,” Margaret said, reaching into the bag she’d brought, and removing several chunks of cooked meat. “I had to wait until the town watch went to bed before I could collect it.” The fox’s stomach rumbled when it smelled the offering, and the animal licked its chops with relish.
Margaret arranged the pieces in the usual pattern. When she finished, she looked up at the full moon and chanted the now-familiar incantation. The fox ate everything she had brought, even gnawing the marrow from what remained of Goody Price’s bones. Margaret had known the schoolteacher had become suspicious of her, and the girl found relief watching the fox erase the last evidence of such suspicion. As it fed, Margaret listened for signs of any other animals that might be drawn to the scent, but the forest was completely silent. Just like the other times.
When the fox was sated, it sat on its haunches and scanned the forest again. Then it spoke. “This task is now complete. Shall there be another task?”
Margaret nodded, and steeled herself. Even with practice, she had never lost her fear of the primeval.
“What, child, do you bring in payment?”
The girl again reached for her bag, and dumped its remaining contents on the forest floor. She had not had much time at the Price house while the town gathered at the gallows, and the late Goodman Price had not been a wealthy man. She had found a small jar of indigo, some fabric, a few apples, and a pair of candlesticks made of a shiny metal.
“This is quite a bit less than what you last offered.”
The crone had taken a different form each time Margaret met with her, appearing as a marten, a wolverine, a wolf, a bat, a hawk. Somehow, Margaret found her human form most frightening, and that was the form that now picked through the scraps of the Prices’ former lives.
Margaret shivered as the hunched old woman spoke. She was always careful not to make eye contact with the crone, lest her thoughts be read and controlled.
“Very well. Who shall it be this time?”
“The midwife who sometimes watches the cousins. I believe she knows too many things.”
“Very well. It shall be done. You shall feed me again at the full corn moon.”
Margaret nodded and lifted her face to look at her fellow conspirator, only to see a large, reddish grey weasel racing for the brush. It reminded her of the marten that approached her months ago, when she had thought she was crying in the forest by herself.
That time, the local beggar woman had seen Margaret stealing an extra share of milk, and threatened to tell everyone if she ever did it again. The scared girl ran off as soon as night fell, making sure she was alone as she entered the woods, which the town’s laws forbid children from exploring. She had said “I wish I could kill Goody Good” a few times before she heard the movement in the bushes. She was terrified that someone from town had followed her, or that the noise meant she had stumbled on Naumkeag land.
Instead, she was confronted by nothing more than a marten, which calmed her. Hearing a marten say, “That can be arranged,” however, was more chilling than anything the girl had feared. She hadn’t fully meant what she said, but the slender animal proved persuasive. It sounded so easy, so final. Under the light of the full moon, she found herself agreeing to terms with the hag into which the marten reshaped itself.
Mere days later in town, she saw the two cousins staring into the eyes of a horned owl that had a familiar appearance. It was too late to question her decision. Though the owl didn’t move its beak or produce a sound, in her head Margaret could hear the bird telling the girls that they had seen Goody Good with the devil, that the goats on which the owl had fed were killed by the old beggar woman. The girls repeated the words quietly. Soon they would repeat them to the town elders. Margaret knew the other girls would be rewarded for finding the supposed witch, but she did not need the credit.
She only needed the townspeople who were mean to her to leave her alone. One by one, she would make them.