THE DEVIL’S GOT NOTHING TO DO WITH IT,” said the witch, “And he can’t get you out of this anymore than praying is going to fill up that store house.”
The village elders sat like guilty schoolboys before a stern and angry mistress. They stared down at the table or flashed helpless glances to each other. These men, hellfire and brimstone brethren, would have been the first to hang a witch, but old Mother Mudd was not to be trifled with.
They said she was a hundred years old, or older, and she had lived in the forest to the west since long before these latest settlers had built their palisades.
“No,” she continued, after enjoying their silence for a long while. “There’s no magic words to save you from this. I’ve seen men starve before and it’s more horrible than you imagine.”
Headman James opened his mouth, his face twisted in rage, but the witch just rolled on.
“When your cows and sheep are gone, you’re going to slaughter those scrawny horses. When they’re gone, you’re going to kill and eat your hounds. By then, the winter’s going to be as cold as it gets. Right about the time you start gnawing on old boot leather, people are going to start dying.”
Headman James’ expression twisted even more and sank into despair. His mind was filled with visions of his children crying and begging him for food.
“Now,” she said, her voice dropping down to a growl. “What’s going to happen when those hungry people realize that there’s meat?”
One of the elders covered his mouth, as though he would be sick, or perhaps to keep from screaming.
“I don’t have to tell you what The Church has to say about that. Some will survive, but what good is life when it costs you so much?”
Here, the old banshee rose and turned toward the door. The righteous men that sat around the hall made no move to stop her. But after a careful step, she paused and turned back.
“And all of this because you can’t think properly. I just can’t leave until I give you a clue. It wouldn’t be… right.”
At that word, the corners of her formless mouth turned up in a diabolical sneer. Headman James, his eyes still blurry, knew what was coming and he was ready to make the deal.
“The problem,” said old Mother Mudd, resuming her march toward the door, “is in how you’re looking at it. You see it only as not having enough food.”
James called after her as she made to pass the threshold.
“How else can we see it?”
“Well,” said the witch, her voice matter-of-fact, “You’d have plenty of food if you didn’t have so many people. And there are many here you wouldn’t mind being rid of, aren’t there?”
Glancing back through sightless eyes that sparkled, she finished.
“You just send them to me.”
story by Joe Stanley