Once upon a time, there was a little boy who thought he was cleverer than everyone else. To prove it, he crept away from his mother and father to the darkest part of the woods. He felt cold claws grip his shoulder. “What boy dares to trespass on my land?” hissed the witch in a voice like ice . . .
Witch witch witch. Whisper her name and feel the freezing wind blow through your ribs. She’ll boil up your eyes for sausages. She’ll feed your fingers to her chickens. She’s the only one who never starves. She can eat every single part of you because she’s got iron teeth that can crunch-munch up your bones . . .
There was a woman who loved her baby. But love is not food, and no matter how hard she tried, she could not feed her child or herself. She despaired. But then she remembered an old story she had heard, a tale of someone who would take babies, and raise them big and fat and strong . . .
Thirteen days after she’d made my little brother, my mother named him Robin. She waited those thirteen days to confuse the witch. If no one uses a name out loud, then the witch doesn’t know that there’s anyone new in the village, and she can’t steal him away.
We didn’t worry too much about the witch back then. We ate twice a day: when the sun came, and again when it left. After the first eating, the fathers tended to the crops and beasts, and the mothers wiped and fed and fussed over the babies.
I played at ghosts with the other children, creeping through the village in silent tiptoeing, trying to get through all the houses without being seen. We’d make necklaces from dried nuts or seedpods or discarded bird feathers—this was a challenge for a ghost, as the necklaces thudded and clacked with every movement. If the others were busy with chores, I was made busy too: scrubbing out pots with salt, throwing seed for chickens, collecting sticks for kindling in the lightest parts of the woods.
When the sun left, we ate again. Afterwards, full-bellied and wrapped in blankets, I nudged close to the fire, ready for stories. The dogs nosed around Robin, sniffing at the scent of new life. My mother wrapped my shoulders in the blankets and my hands around a cup of hot milk.
“ ‘Once upon a time,’ “ she said, and when she got to “ever after” my head was nodding, my half-finished cup of milk tipping out of my hands. I wouldn’t get in trouble for that—the cows were fat and broody, and we could have as much milk as we wanted. My mother tucked me in, kissed the top of my head, and tucked Robin’s milk-dozy body in beside me. I pulled the blankets up over our heads. I wanted to whisper stories to him in the cave of our breath, but it was too hot. I pulled the blankets back and tucked them under his fat little chin. The wind howled at the shutters and the swooping yellow fire cast shadows around the house. Love pulsed through our home like blood through a good strong heart.
At the table, the fathers carved pipes and statues from wood, their voices burring like the growls of bears. Around the fire, the mothers knitted blankets and darned socks and checked on the babies, both named and unnamed. Their hands and eyes were always moving. When they thought I was asleep, they told stories about the safety of the village and the danger of the woods. The stories they told one another were similar to the stories my mother told me, but not the same. They told stories about the witch, because everyone told stories about the witch.
One girl, moony with love for her husband-to-be, had wandered too far into the dark part of the woods and was found two weeks later, half mad, singing tunelessly to herself, her front teeth chipped as if she’d tried to bite down on metal. One man had become greedy, dissatisfied with his winter berries, sure that a sweeter crop grew on the other side of the shadows; he hadn’t returned, but his clothing had been found torn and strewn among the high branches, his hunting knife plunged deep into a tree trunk. One boy had gone giggling into the woods on a dare, and stumbled home the following dawn with his right hand missing. The next night his finger bones, gnawed clean and sucked of marrow, were left in a stack at the edge of the village.
My dreams pulsed red and white and sharp, blood on snow and the flash of iron teeth. I woke up sobbing the witch’s name, and after that the village mothers always told their stories too quietly for me to hear.
The witch did not get us. But hunger came for us instead. I don’t know what happened to the food; I just know that, slowly and then all at once, there was none. We did not eat when the sun came, only when it left. Eating by the light of the fire meant we could see the shadows cast by the food and pretend it was bigger on the dish. Shadows couldn’t be eaten, though, and my parents’ meals were gone in two bites. Then they watched us eat from behind hooded eyes, pretending they weren’t watching. Robin and I tried not to hunch over and cram food into our mouths as if worried that someone was about to steal it.
Food was all anyone thought about, though they never said. We saw it in our parents’ tight smiles and shadowed eyes. Every night we ate, being regretted. Each stale crust and each quarter-egg, regretted. We made sure to chew every last crumb, and we licked our hands clean. I don’t know if that made them regret us less or more. We feared our hunger, but it was hard to fear a lack, hard to fear a feeling inside your own body. Always, always, there was a greater and easier fear: the witch.
“ ‘Once upon a time,’ “ my mother said to us every bedtime. Robin and I pulled the blankets to our chins, sipping our thimbles of hot milk so it would last for the whole story. Robin was littler than me, and was still put to sleep by the lull of our mother’s voice. When I was a child like him I’d always be dozing by the “ever after.” I remembered all the milk I’d wasted. How I longed for it now.
One morning, we awoke to find that the village’s newest baby—so new it had not even been named—was gone. How could the witch get him, I wondered, when no one had used his name? Her power must be growing the hungrier we got.
That night, the fathers clustered at our table, but they spoke only in nods. Instead of carving pipes, they carved tiny wooden totems, one by each man to represent the lost baby. The mothers still huddled at the fire, endlessly knitting new blankets from the scraps of other worn-out blankets. The mother of the lost baby sat closest to the fire, clutching a handful of scraps and staring into the flames. The other mothers clustered around her. Their voices rose and fell like an uncertain storm, loud enough that a single exclamation pulled me from sleep, then quiet enough that I couldn’t make out the words.
I started to pull the covers over my head, thinking that if I could not hear mention of the witch, she would not be able to find me—but my ears prickled. This was not the story of the witch. This was a new story. I held my breath, all the better to listen.
“There was a woman who loved her baby,” announced one mother. By the firelight, I saw the other mothers look at her in surprise. Tentatively, another mother chimed in: “But love is not food.” Another mother took up the tale, and then another, each adding a sentence as the story grew. “And no matter how hard she tried, she could not feed her child or herself.” “She despaired.” “But then she remembered an old story she had heard.” “A tale of someone who would take babies, and raise them big and fat and strong.”
I wanted to hear this new story. But my bed was warm, and my brain was fogged with hunger, and the storm of voices dropped too quiet. Sleep crept in.
The witch lurked at the edge of the village, through snow-crunchy winters and slow-burning autumns. Through lost children and lost mothers and lost fathers. Through the slow deaths of the last of the cattle and the desperate slaughter of our chickens. Our thimbles of milk shrank smaller still, and our parents’ meals were gone in a single bite. The fathers carved many more totems. These were gifted to the grieving families, who lined them up the inside of their windowsills and never once complained that the statues were useless, being made of wood and no good for eating. Each time a baby disappeared, the mothers told the new story, though I never managed to hear the end.
Somehow my mother began to grow fat. Her belly swelled like a summer cloud. Every part of her went to feed her belly: her eyes shrank in hollowed sockets, her arms thinned to string, her shoulders grew as sharp as chicken’s beaks. But her belly ballooned. I imagined it full of milk, the milk that I no longer got at bedtime, the milk I’d wasted.
And then one day Robin was only my next-littlest brother, because my mother made Boy. Boy was the littlest in the village, now or ever. He was so little that my father could have hidden him in his closed-over hands. But you would have thought Boy was a giant for what it took from our mother to make him.
When we crept to her bed, for a moment we couldn’t see her. Only one lamp was lit and the blankets made a mass of shadows. We shuffled closer. Then a blanket moved, and we recognised our mother’s face. She was as pale as new snow, even her hair and eyes. She reached out a hand to us and it looked like nothing so much as a bunch of silver birch twigs. Robin flinched back, and it took everything I had not to copy him. I tightened the muscles of my legs and leaned in to take the hand. It felt cold and hot: the fingertips icy, the palms slippery with sweat. My mother croaked my name, crow-like. I leaned in to her, pressing my face to her scrawny neck, inhaling her comforting scent. I was so hungry that I would gladly have eaten her hair.
Our meal was potato roots and parings of bacon fat boiled in snow-water. Watching us sip it, my father clenched and unclenched his fists. The fatty chunks were only enough for five bites but I made them last for ten, chewing each small mouthful as long as I could.
Afterwards I slid into bed without complaint, tucking the blanket up under Robin’s chin. My mother was too weak to get out of her bed. Boy wriggled and squalled beside her. The mothers huddled around her bed, which was so surprising I almost opened my eyes. I had expected them to ignore Boy: new tiny people were the witch’s favourite, and she was always listening. But instead they cooed over him, pinching his pale cheeks and waggling his spindly legs.
“I must feed him,” croaked my mother. “I can’t lift him. Will you lift him? Lay him on his mother.”
“Hush now,” said the mothers. “You are too ill to feed him.”
“Let me try.”
“We have tried. You have no milk. You must not worry—he’ll be fine. The Mother of Giants will feed him soon enough.”
“No!” cried my mother. “She doesn’t need to take him. I can feed him . . . I can . . . ”
But she couldn’t manage any more words. The mothers leaned over her bed.
“There was a woman who loved her baby,” they whispered in chorus. And when they’d finished their story and dozed off in their chairs, when an icy wind whined through the black trees and powdery snow sifted under everybody’s doors, someone came to my sleeping house and took Boy away.
That night I slid obediently into bed. The sickly fire flickered over my closed eyelids. The knitting needles click-clacked. The fathers began carving wooden totems of Boy for us to line up on our windowsill.
“There was a woman who loved her baby,” the story began, and I dug my fingernails hard into my palms so I would stay awake. I needed to know the end of the story—who the Mother of Giants was, and why they told her story over and over.
But my mother turned her face to the wall and said, “I don’t want this story.”
“It will help,” urged the mothers.
“Stories can’t help now,” said my mother. “A story didn’t take him.”
Her sobs shook the bed, the floor, the house. The story was told anyway, and my mother’s sobs were too loud for me to hear. Finally the story was finished and the house was quiet. The women dozed in their chairs, heads tipped back, laps warmed by their knitting.
I lay awake. At last I knew the end of the story. The mothers took their babies into the woods and left them out in the snow, and then the Mother of Giants took them, and they lived for ever in a sunny land of banquets and dances and happiness.
My body felt stiff and hot. I hated Boy. I hated all the babies who had gone with the Mother of Giants. Why not me? It wasn’t fair. I wanted banquets.
I slid out of bed, careful not to wake Robin. I would come back and get him later, when I had convinced the Mother of Giants to take us even though we weren’t babies. My bare feet flinched from the cold floor, so I slid them into my father’s fur boots, which reached to my knees. I added his fur cape and hat, and I was covered from head to toe. I slid out of the snoring house.
Into the woods I crept and crept and crept. The shadows of birds watched me. I straightened my back and stopped creeping. I strode through the woods in my oversized furs, pretending I was not afraid. The Mother of Giants lived in the darkest part of the woods—but so did the witch.
I glanced behind me and saw a shadow slip behind a tree. My heart lurched. I crouched with my fists to my mouth.
Then the shadows resolved into a shape I recognised. Robin. He had followed me. As I’d taken the furs, Robin had none at all. His shadow shivered. I couldn’t go any further. If Robin froze to death, even the Mother of Giants couldn’t save him. I strode over like a giant in my father’s boots and wrapped Robin in the fur cape. Together we left the woods.
Back at home, I tucked the blanket up to Robin’s chin and slid in beside him. The cold was in my bones and I couldn’t stop shivering. Robin had followed me into the woods—but the witch followed me back out. When I shut my eyes, she was there. She had filthy matted hair and shining gold eyes and long, sharp fingers like a bird’s talons. She rushed towards me and her mouth opened so wide that it split her head open to show her black bloody teeth.
I shrieked awake, and found that my mother was gone. Her body lay still in her bed but she was not there. The mothers huddled round her bed, while my father stood silent in the corner, his jaw set.
Like the sacrifice that breaks a curse, my mother’s death ended the famine. That day, the first green shoot poked through the snow. A pair of rabbits bounded right up to our door, their necks snappable and their haunches fat. There was a little food, and then more, and more, and after a while we forgot how it felt to be hungry.
Ten winters passed, each milk-full and heavy with the scent of roasting pork. I had my own boys, two fat babies, each with bright black eyes and dark copper hair. I named them both straight away: Owl and Fox, to make them clever, to make them sly, to make them never go hungry.
I forgot all about the Mother of Giants. I would never need her to take my children, for I could give them everything they needed.
And yet. And yet. Slowly and then all at once, there was no food.
Now I grow fat with my third child. It swells and fidgets inside me, and I know I am growing a giant because everything in me is going to it. I feel my eyes shrink in hollowed sockets, my arms thin to string, my shoulders grow as sharp as chicken’s beaks. My belly balloons. I feel myself disappearing into my bed, lost in the folds of my blanket.
The other mothers cluster around my bed, needles click-clacking.
“There was a woman who loved her baby,” says one. Another adds: “But love is not food.”
One by one, they tell me the story of the Mother of Giants, the same one I overheard as a child. I lie in my bed, cold with horror. All my life I believed that Boy was living for ever in a sunny land of banquets and dances and happiness. I knew that the mothers took their babies into the woods and left them out in the snow. I knew what they had done. And yet I had did not truly know. I envied those children, left to die alone. I wanted to join them.
“How could they?” I say. “The mothers, they—”
But I am speaking to a deaf room. The night is dark, and the other mothers have drifted off, chins to chests. I feel that I will never sleep again. I imagine my baby, weeks old, shrinking smaller and smaller. Its hollowed eyes. Its fragile bones. Its weak sobs fading to silence.
Then I imagine my baby, birth-new and swaddled in snow, falling into a gentle sleep. Its time in this world so quick and kind that it will only ever know good things.
I know that feeding this child will kill me: haven’t I seen enough women, empty of milk, the child at their breast too weak to cry? I’m no good to Owl and Fox if I’m dead. I know what I have to do. There is no witch to snatch my child. There is no Mother of Giants to save him.
I shake the other mothers awake. My voice sounds in a croak, but this doesn’t matter. However long it takes, I will make them see that we do not need the Mother of Giants any more. We don’t need stories, because there is no shame in the truth.
Once there was a village of brave, wise, loving women. They were brave because they made hard decisions without the comfort of stories. They were wise because they knew when to give life, and when to take it. They were loving because they did what was best for their children.