Hi guys! I’ve got an original fairytale, The Gold Witch, out in a new anthology called Darkly Never After: Fairytales for Adulthood. The paperback just came out last night, and I wanted to share my story with you here, because it means a lot to me. Also, I think you’ll really like some of the other stories in the anthology, so go pick up a copy for Gothtober or Christmas. I hope you’re having a great month. Blessings.
The Gold Witch
By Laura K. Cowan
Once upon a time there was a boy made entirely of gold coins. Gold coins stacked to make legs and arms, a gold coin for a belly button, and particularly bright and big gold coins for eyes. He tried not to move too much in his cage, to keep from shaking himself to pieces. There was no reason to move around anyway, even if he could. The world outside his enclosure was dark and cold. Rock walls surrounded his hanging iron box, and the witch who fed him only came to see him once a day, when she would light a fire in the next room to warm him.
Every night the witch would come to the boy, and she brought him sumptuous feasts. The boy loved the sweets in particular, sticky rolls so light and fluffy they tasted of hardly more than sweet morning air. But the witch extracted a price from the boy. Every night she came to his cage, she demanded that he give her one of his gold coins.
“But they are all I am made of,” he protested. “What will I do if I lose the pieces of myself?”
“I need them,” the witch insisted. “I am dying, poor boy, and your gold coins are my medicine. I melt them in my cauldron at midnight each night and pour the paste onto my face, and it improves my health. You see?”
And the boy made of gold could see. The witch had a face that glowed with a golden light. She was beautiful, despite her black and tattered robes, and grew more beautiful and healthy-looking every day. The boy gave her a coin when she asked, though he had a rattling feeling in his middle about it. He did not want her to die, if she was sick. And she insisted that he was the only one who could save her life. And he did not want to be alone.
“That is why I have to keep you in this cage,” she told him, “so that we can be together and you can be safe from gold thieves until I recover and we can go away from here.” He believed her, because he could not remember a time when he had not been in the cage. It did feel safer than the dark cave around him. He gave her the coins, because he could not remember ever not giving her his coins. He worried sometimes. His legs seemed a little thin. But he could not remember if they had once been thicker, made of more stacks of coins than now, or not. The cave and the cage was all he knew and all he remembered.
The witch became more beautiful, and the boy became thinner. One day the boy began to count. He had to stop thinking of the witch’s sickness and her beautiful face in order to do it. She seemed unhappy with his lack of attention when she came to feed him, but he concentrated. If he kept just the number of coins he had given her in his mind, he could manage to keep track.
Ten. Twenty. Thirty. On the day when the boy gave the witch his thirtieth coin, his knee rattled and he had to grip it tightly to hold it together. “Surely you are beautiful enough now, dear witch,” he said that night as he handed over his coin. “Are you yet well?”
“Am I well? No, indeed,” said the witch. “I waste away and am terribly exhausted by it all, and these feasts I cook for you take so much of my energy I do not know when I will be fully recovered. This has been hard on me, this recovery. I was once twice as beautiful. But now, I am little more than a servant, cooking you these extravagant meals.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” said the boy, and sat down in the middle of his cage. He had the creeping rattling feeling again, that something was wrong, that the witch wanted to grab through the bars at him and take a fistful of coins from his chest instead of just the one. But she smiled at him and told him he was lovely, and she showed him her progress. And his limbs loosened once more.
“Am I not becoming more beautiful by the day?” she asked.
“Yes,” the boy agreed. “You look quite healthy indeed.”
“Health is just the beginning,” she snapped. But then she smiled at him again. “I wonder,” she said in her sweetest voice, “if you would give me a second coin tonight. Maybe if I could get better more quickly, I would have the energy to make you even more sumptuous feasts. And then we could both recover. If I give you more food, your coins will be replenished and we will both be whole.”
The boy’s coins trembled, and he held himself tightly around the middle. “I do not know that I have two coins to give,” he said quietly.
“Selfish boy,” the witch snapped, rushing up to the bars and reaching through. Her eyes were like fire, reflecting back the glow of his body. “You are made entirely of gold!” she said. “How could a boy so beautiful not be willing to share of his wealth with others? Especially a poor sick woman.”
The boy cowered away from her grasping hands. Her face was lovely, but her nails that scratched the cage floor were the color of the cave walls, ragged and smelling of wet rocks. She tore up the floor of the cage with her claws and sent the boy’s cage swinging. “Give me your eyes!” she demanded. “Your biggest and brightest two coins should be enough.”
“But then I will not be able to see!” the boy wailed. “You would not take my eyes.”
“You do not need them,” the witch insisted. “I am here to take care of you. I have loved you well, have I not? I have protected you from gold thieves and fed you the finest of foods and kept you warm with my fires. Help me. I need your eyes.”
The boy shivered and cowered in the back of his cage, and he would not speak to the witch any more.
Finally she stopped shaking his cage, and she gave the boy the coldest look he could imagine. He felt his gold feet begin to freeze. “If you will not give me what I need,” she said in a voice of smothered fire ash, “then I will take it.”
The witch left without feeding the boy that night, and he was hungry.
In the morning, the witch came back. Instead of being angry, she was smiling again. She had baked a whole pile of sticky rolls and held a mug of hot chocolate by the cage door. It steamed and reached out to the hungry boy with the scent of deep flowering things, releasing a sudden flash in his mind of bright flowers.
Flowers? The boy was surprised. How was it that he could remember something called a flower? They were the brightest red and climbed up a stone wall in a green glade. He had never seen a green glade. He wondered how he knew what a glade was.
He drew in his breath, and the witch looked closely at him. “What is it, my dear?” she said.
“It is nothing,” he insisted. “Could I please have some of that to drink?”
The witch drew the mug to her dusty chest. “First,” she said, “I want two coins. From your chest.”
“But I cannot!” gasped the boy. “I will be all used up soon! Please let me eat.”
“I brought you these wonderful foods to replenish your coins,” the witch insisted. “This way, we can both be made whole.”
The boy looked at the hot chocolate and the sticky rolls. He looked at the witch. “Very well,” he said. “But only for today. I need to see that my coins come back when I eat those rolls.”
“All’s fair,” the witch cackled, and tossed the entire plate of rolls through the bars.
The boy sat there all day and late into the night, eating the sticky rolls one by one, until he felt quite sick.
His coins did not replenish.
The next morning the witch came back before the boy had even woken up for the day. She rattled the cage with her stone-nailed hands. “Boy!” she said. “Your coins did not work last night. Quick. I am desperate. You must give me three coins today.”
“But the food did not work either,” the boy said. “My coins did not return. I cannot give you three coins, I am sorry.”
The witch grabbed the cage bars with her hands. The boy could see now. Her skin was no longer smooth, even by her face. It was splotched with gray freckles. The golden sheen of her smooth face was fading. “Isn’t the gold working anymore?” he said. “Oh, I am sorry.”
“It will work,” she insisted, “I just need more to complete my cure. Give me the coins.”
“But I cannot,” the boy said. “I am falling to pieces. My legs are so thin I cannot stand anymore. My arms rattle all night.”
“Selfish, selfish boy!” the witch cried. “You are nothing but gold! How can you deny me? You care nothing for me, a poor old woman with no one in the world to take care of her. You care only for yourself!”
“Maybe if you let me out of the cage,” the boy said, “we could go look for another cure together.”
“Why? So you can run away and leave me all alone? I think not!” The witch hissed and struck the cage with her fist. “That is why I have to keep you in this cage,” she told the boy, “because you never were one to be trusted. If I let you out, you will run away, and I will die a terrible death, all alone. You are my only hope, boy. You must give me more coins.”
The boy was shaking now, and his coins rattled together so furiously that he could not stop them. The sound echoed off the walls, until the cave was full of the sound of jingling gold.
The sound only seemed to enrage the witch. She grasped at the boy through the bars of the cage. “Give me the gold!” she screamed.
Suddenly the boy found himself in her grasp, being pulled toward the door of the cage. She had grasped his face, and was pulling him by his eyes toward the door.
“You want out?” she growled. “I will get you out of there, then.”
The witch struck the cage and the door swung open with fiery sparks. She grabbed the boy by the throat with her free hand, and dragged him into the next room, where her fire was still smoldering from the night before.
“You are trembling, dear boy,” she said. “Here. Let me light a fire for you, to warm you.”
The witch held the boy with one strong hand, and with the other she heaped wood on the fire beneath her cauldron. The fire grew and grew, until it was a blaze that nearly swallowed the pot in the center of it.
“You want to be selfish? Gluttonous? Horrid? Cruel to an old woman?” the witch hissed at the boy as her hand tightened around the stack of coins that made up his trembling throat. “You want to keep back what is owed me? Very well. Then we shall put an end to this game. You will give me what I want now, or you will die!”
The witch threw the boy into the pot on top of the fire. He tried to jump out, but she was on top of him in a moment, stuffing him down into the cauldron, fitting a lid on top of him. He thought he would die of the steam, the heat. He was in a furnace, felt himself slowly melting down to the bottom of the pot.
It was dark, like the cave. Hot. Wet. Stifling. His eyes began to melt, and he felt himself running down, gold over gold liquifying in the pot.
It was then that the boy began to grow. He felt himself shifting, changing, growing and growing, until he could not fit in the pot. The witch screamed and pushed down with her whole weight on the lid of the pot. But he was rising, up out of the pot. He looked down at himself, at his spreading arms. He was not made of gold coins anymore. He was a boy. A real boy.
The boy grabbed the lid of the pot from his shoulders. He tossed the witch and the lid of the cauldron across the cave, where they crumpled against the far wall. He jumped out of the pot, afraid to look down, because he felt his feet and ankles burning. Without even looking behind him, the boy ran out of the room, and through the cave with his cage. His eyes were still melting. He swiped at them, and this time his hand came away covered in blood.
The boy ran past the cage and into the passage where the witch entered every night.
Behind him, the boy heard the witch come to. She screamed, and he heard her dive for the pot in the fire. “My gold!” she cried. He heard the impact as she dove headfirst into the blaze.
“I will use it all! I will live forever!” she cried. “I will be made of purest gold, the most beautiful woman the world has—.” But her words stopped there. The fire roared behind the boy, covering the walls in the dancing reflections of flames. He ran on.
It wasn’t long before the boy emerged from the tunnel. The mouth of the cave opened into a green glade, where there was a rose bush flowering over the entrance to the tunnel. He rushed out, suddenly full of the sound of things around him. Instead of cold wet walls there were trees. Birds flitted through the sunshine. The flowers. They were in every color he could imagine and remember, and they smelled so much better than sticky rolls. He wiped his eyes again, to clear them of the blood. His hand came away mingled in blood and gold.
The boy remembered now. He looked down at his body, in the tattered clothes of a much younger boy that barely covered his scarred skin. His legs were bleeding, gouged in a hundred places on either side, as if someone had taken a spoon to him and eaten his flesh raw. His feet were steaming. His clothes smelled like the witch’s fires.
“She wanted to eat me,” he said to himself, in a daze. “She was eating me. All for a beautiful face?”
The boy looked around the glade. He could feel something within his heart stop, suddenly, and cease running. He wanted to cry. He had been in the cage for so long, and yet the whole time he had felt himself running, never still, tearing back and forth inside, looking for a way out. He had known the witch was consuming him. That was the terrible thing he could now see. It had been too terrible for him to allow himself to see before, with his bright eyes of gold that she wanted to possess, to pluck out like golden grapes and devour in a single greedy gulp.
The boy took a deep breath of the rose-scented air, more fragrant than hot chocolate, fresher than a steaming feast. Instead of rattling and jingling, the boy’s chest heaved and relaxed. He wanted to run again, to be far away from this place. But he could not, because he looked down just then, and he saw the gold, melted into the soles of his feet, creeping up his legs to fill his wounds. They sealed over with a hiss, the last whisper of the witch’s greed.
He was whole once more. He remembered sunshine, and birds, and he remembered that he had had friends once, and a father and mother who loved him. The boy with the golden feet set off down the mountainside, out of the glade, to find his family, and everything broken that he touched mended with golden seams.