Deep in the Mortimor Woods and far off the Woody Path, but not too far, was a handsome, ugly cottage. Handsome because it was sturdily built, wood and nails and a low roof of shingles all coming together to create a small but cozy home. Ugly because the wood was the black of mildew stains, the roof overgrown and reaching, the windows and doors and corners all meeting at sweaty, nonsensical angles. Looking at the cottage could bring a king to his knees and make a hungry man retch.
And yet the people walking in the Woody Path would often stop to find this cottage. Sometimes, they were in the Mortimor Woods specifically to find it. For, as the stories went, living in the handsome, ugly cottage was a powerful witch. And that powerful witch was not shy about trading spells for payment. All sorts of payment, the stories went. Money, surely. Fruits from faraway lands, of course. But stranger things still. Your second happiest memory. All the vowels in your name. The wart growing on your thumb.
Jessalyn had heard all of the stories, and so many times she’d memorized a fair lot of them. And when her husband took ill, and the village’s wise woman called for the doctor, and the doctor called for a priest, and the priest only took his hand and began to pray, Jessalyn knew she had to do something else. So she put on her heaviest boots and found the stoutest stick she could. She kissed her husband on the head and told him she was going to get his favorite sweet from the market. And then Jessalyn set off.
The village she lived in was only a day’s walk from the Mortimor Woods. She made a little camp of nothing more than a woven blanket in the crook of a tree. She was brave, or perhaps just foolhardy, but not enough to walk into the Mortimor Woods at night. At first dawn she packed up her blanket, ate a bit of bread and cheese, and ventured into the trees.
It was an old forest, the oldest forest in the land some would say. The branches were twisted and gnarled, and sometimes seemed to reach for her even when there was no wind to move them. Sounds of animals in the underbrush reached her, but she never saw rabbit nor squirrel nor pheasant. And though she was sure it was still daylight, in fact could only still be morning, not nearly enough sunlight reached her shoulders as she walked. Once, she heard a coach pulled by horses coming toward her from the other direction and she hid. Probably just a noble or a merchant, going from kingdom to kingdom, but the thought of meeting anyone in the Mortimor Woods made her shiver.
Finally, she reached the spot the stories told her about: the smallest little bridge, too small to be necessary, crossing over the tiniest little stream. Once a traveler had found the bridge, they needed only to follow the flow of the stream. After a certain amount of time – the stories never said what amount, and some insisted that it changed depending on the witch’s mood – the tiny stream would pool into a tiny lake no more than a puddle, and from there the traveler only had to follow the ivy somehow blossoming purple even in the deepness of the woods to-
Jessalyn swallowed hard, and gripped the bag around her shoulder for strength. She had found the handsome, ugly cottage. It stood in front of her and made her feel as though the whole world was shimmering in the heat. Her brain began yelling run, woman, run, fool, run as though your life depends on it for surely it does!
But her heart thought only of her ailing husband, surely with not much time left. Jessalyn knew she could not leave without trying. With every ounce of strength she had, the strength she used to help plow her fields and build their barn and bear her children, Jessalyn stepped forward to the crooked front door of the handsome, ugly house and knocked three times.
It felt like hours, and it felt like a second, before the door swung open on silent hinges. Standing in front of Jessalyn, holding the crooked door open, was a woman as handsome, and as ugly, as her home. Black hair hung from her head with nary a wave or ripple. Her face was pale as ice, her lips and eyelids as black as smudge. She was wearing a dress all in black, layers upon layers of black, and her nails were painted the same. The two women studied each other for several seconds. Jessalyn, having already done the most terrifying part, felt emboldened that she hadn’t already been turned into a toad.
“I seek the witch of Mortimor Woods,” Jessalyn said. “My husband-”
The woman held up a white, boney hand. “I’m shall stop you there, for I am not the witch, and I should hate that you have to repeat your story.”
Jessalyn blinked. “You’re…you’re not the witch? But I was told there was a witch, living in a cottage at the end of the purple ivy, at the end of the tiniest river, which leads from the tiniest bridge over the Woody Path.”
“You have been told the truth. But it is not I you seek.” And she pointed one bony finger over Jessalyn’s shoulder.
Jessalyn turned slowly, fear filling her again. If this woman was not the witch, who was? How much worse would the real witch be?
Across a small field, shielded by bright green trees heavy with fruit, was a beautiful cottage, as dainty and pretty as this one was handsome and ugly. It was painted pink with blue trim and Jessalyn was quite certain soap bubbles were floating out of the chimney.
Standing on the stoop of the cottage was a beautiful young man wearing the brightest suit of gold and silver. His smile was bright enough to be seen across the field, and he was waving.
“Hello! Are you looking for the witch? That’s me! I’m the witch! Everyone goes to poor Poppy there but she’s just a friend! Come, come! Let’s see what the witch of Mortimor Woods can do for you!”
Jessalyn turned back to the woman in the black, but she had already shut the door.
“Don’t worry about her, she’s just shy! Come on, then! I’ve made kettle corn!”
Inspired by this.