On a little farm, up a little hill, not far from a little village, a farmer’s wife was wailing. So long had she cried for her husband that the crows and the ravens and the jackdaws had eaten up her plaintive notes and scattered them like seeds down the little hill, and dropped them like pennies across the little village.
The baker sent fresh bread but the farmer’s wife did not eat. The wisewoman left tea upon her stoop but the farmer’s wife did not drink. She tended the animals and crops as she ought but could take no pleasure. When she tried to read, the ink slipped from the pages and pooled in her palms. Every song she sang turned to one long, mournful cry upon her tongue. Everything the farmer’s wife tried, grew cold and brittle and cracked between her fingers.
And so, instead, she walked.
The farmer’s wife walked from the old stone farmhouse, through the creaking wooden barn, and up to the top of the little hill where an apple tree was waiting. The apple tree was a crooked thing and had stood upon the hill longer by far than the farm. It had been her husband’s favorite.
Not so long ago, a cruel wind swept through the little village, up the little hill and in through the door of the farmhouse—which had always been swinging to and fro with villagers and their children, farm cats and their kittens, and the odd strange little visitor from the woods nearby. It brought with it a fever and, before it went, scooped her husband up and carried him far away.
She buried him beneath the apple tree.
The farmer’s wife cried for so long, and so deeply, that the ground of his grave grew thick with grass and the apple tree flourished—heavy with red, red apples.
Before long the crows and the ravens and the jackdaws forgot the cadence of her wailing, the baker stopped leaving bread and the wisewoman tea, and the farmer’s wife’s eyes were dry but her heart, which had been so full for so, so long, remained empty.
When Summer lifted her skirts and tiptoed down the little hill and through the little village with Autumn close at her heels, it came time to harvest.
But the farmer’s wife was old and the cattle that worked the farm had always been her husband’s creatures. No matter how hard she pushed or how nicely she spoke to them, the cows refused to work.
“Come on, you great, lumbering milk-sacks.” The farmer’s wife heaved the reins but Felicity—the farmer’s once-prized cow—would not budge.
There was a skittering from the wall, and when she turned her head, a crow pattered towards her. “Need help?”
“No, little crow. I just wish my husband were here.”
“You should call on the wiswoad.” It cawed.
The farmer’s wife frowned. “The what-what?”
“The wiswoad. In the woods, small fellow, big feet and a long nose. You can’t miss it.” The crow cocked its head. “The wiswoad can help. Take a gift, make a wish.”
“Well, we’ll see about that.” With one last tug on Felicity’s reins—“Stupid thing!”—the farmer’s wife sighed and huffed and stomped back to the farmhouse. She bustled around the kitchen and rustled together a basket of bread and cured meats, cheese and butter, apples and freshly baked biscuits. The farmer’s wife slung her shawl across her shoulders and trudged down the little dirt track to the woods.
The trees reached out in welcome, brushed her shoulders and ushered her along. The woods had changed since her youth; the trees were no longer uptight things with straight trunks and uniform branches, standing in regimental rows—now, they leant and bent and whirled in circles, the whorls of their knots peering back at her like round, black eyes. Their roots bridged up from the ground and made messy pathways across the stamped earth.
The farmer’s wife wobbled down the trail. It wound around between the oak, the chestnut, the ash and the elder, but never did it split. The path shot straight through the wood, on and on until it met a small house, with a small stream beside it.
From one fungiform chimney puffed clouds of pale purple smoke, up and up until it drifted into the great pregnant belly of the clouds. The little red door was open just slightly and the scent of a wood fire wafted out of it, infused with lavender and herbs that the farmer’s wife couldn’t place.
The farmer’s wife cleared her throat. When nothing happened, she crouched—her old bones creaking like the barn door’s hinges—and knocked one knuckle on the tiny door.
“What?” came a voice. “What is it? I’m busy. Busy, busy!”
“Are…” croaked the farmer’s wife, and coughed. “Are you the wiswoad?”
One large lilac eye peered out from the gap between the door and the frame. “Might be.” It looked her up and down. “Very might be.”
As the door swung open, the farmer’s wife hobbled backwards, and the little creature stepped out. It wore a purple hat on its little head and purple boots on its big feet and a coat of deep maroon. The wiswoad tilted its head in greeting and its long nose nearly grazed the ground.
“I’ve brought you a gift,” said the farmer’s wife, shifting the basket across the ground with her foot.
“Gift, gift.” The wiswoad rifled through the basket—when it got to the cheese, it scrunched its nose up and gagged deep in its throat. The wiswoad grabbed the offending parcel and lobbed it into the stream. It leant back on its haunches then and smiled a sharp-toothed smile. “Good, good.”
The wiswoad sat on a little stump and spread its hands. “A favor for a friend?”
“I…” The farmer’s wife wrung her hands and chewed her bottom lip. “I’m struggling on the farm. I’m old and exhausted and have no sons to tend it for me. The animals and I…we never got on. We should all like my husband back—please.”
“A very big favor.” The creature tipped its hat back and peered up at the farmer’s wife.
“A very big basket,” she retorted.
The wiswoad tapped its lips and considered her, a slow smile crept across its lips and a twinkle glittered in its eye. It left a long finger on its chin and nodded. “Okay. Done. Basket, husband, deal.”
“How?” asked the farmer’s wife.
“Cut down branch of once-favorite tree, bury it beneath straw, leave clothes and close door. Sleep night through and husband be waiting for you.” With that, the wiswoad tugged the basket towards its little house and pulled it through the little door with a crunch—the door being far smaller than the basket, though the wiswoad didn’t seem to mind.
Later, the farmer’s wife took a hatchet to the apple bough above her husband’s grave and hefted it across to the barn. She left it beneath the straw as the wiswoad bade and on top she laid his favorite shirt, trousers, boots and hat—she even left a square for his pocket, a little paisley pattern made from one of her skirts.
Before she left, she kissed her fingertips and placed them where his heart would be.
That night, when the wiswoad winked its great purple eye through a knot-hole in the barn’s wall, the straw began to shuffle. The farmer’s shirt slipped between the wisps, followed by his trousers and then his boots.
A cool breeze swept past and the apple bough stood, clothes hanging loosely on its form; the breeze circled around and carried some of the straw up with it, which barrelled beneath the shirt and up the legs of the trousers. Soon, the bough became a man and the man collected his hat from the floor and popped it on his head.
First he looked like a scarecrow—nothing more than a rickety old tatterdemalion—but as the wiswoad watched, the farmer came to life.
Outside, a small root buckled and the plant above it drooped, fell, died.
There was a cockerel in the window and it was screeching.
The farmer’s wife leapt up and the bird batted its wings and screamed past her, its little talons catching in her hair. “Away with you, you foul thing!”
She grunted, her old bones protesting the early hour.
The farmer’s wife went about her morning, near-sure she’d dreamt the crow and the woods and the wiswoad. Even when she noticed her largest basket was missing, she couldn’t quite bring herself to believe in the adventure of the day before.
She lumbered past the open barn door, and greeted her husband. Greeted her husband?—the farmer’s wife stopped then, dropped the firewood she carried, and rushed back to the barn.
There he was, feeding each cow in turn, scratching behind their ears and telling jokes to a chorus of mooing, just as he used to. He greeted the goats next, tickled their chins and murmured into their long ears how he’d missed them.
“Arthur?” whispered the farmer’s wife with a hand on her heart and a quiver in her voice.
“There you are, my pet. I was just telling Felicity what a wonderful sleep I had last night.” He opened his arms and the farmer’s wife folded herself into them.
“Oh, Arthur!” she sobbed and while she sobbed, she didn’t notice the cows behind them sagging, their bellows growing low.
The farmer worked the farm and his wife watched. She watched the way his arms moved, the way the breeze swept through his hair, the tilted shuffle of his gait. She tried not to notice the crops withering behind him.
It’s normal, she thought when Felicity struggled to pull the plough. It’s a difficult task. She’s just tired.
And when the farm cat was unable to climb the low wall around her herb garden, she told herself, She’s old, not as spry as she once was. Though she knew the cat had been but a kitten the summer before last. Without Arthur to help, she’d hand reared the little thing herself.
But when husband and wife walked up the little hill and looked out over the little village, apples dropped rotten from her husband’s favorite tree. They landed deep in the pit of her stomach.
Each moment spent with Arthur, the more she shook with the effort. Her arms were logs and her legs great trunks, each of them dragging heavy, as if laying roots. When they reached the door of the farmhouse, and the farmer’s wife was wheezing, her husband kissed her hand, bid her goodnight and started back to the barn.
“Arthur?” She frowned.
“There’s more work to be done, my pet. You go on.” The farmer looked over his shoulder and tipped his hat in the same way he had every morning, when he left for the fields or the barn or the market. As the grasses and shrubs blackened at his passing, tears stung his wife’s eyes and the breath died in her throat.
The way through the woods was wilder than it had been before and the farmer’s wife was tired, so tired. Every move was as if made through mud, thick and cloying, and hardening with each step.
The closer she got to the wiswoad, the more her exhaustion faded. Further away from her husband, the air became lighter and brighter were the leaves. Her chest might have loosened, her breath might have come smoother but the farmer’s wife did not notice. Instead, there was a burning in her diaphragm, her throat, on her tongue, in her veins.
“Get out here, you tricksy little imp!”
Something rustled in the undergrowth. Then the wiswoad appeared, chewing on an air-hardened crust.
“What?” It said, spraying breadcrumbs across the path.
“You tricked me.”
“No trick. You ask for life, life takes life. Husband lives so others must sicken, others, maybe wife, must die.” The wiswoad picked at its long nails.
The farmer’s wife shook, she bit her tongue for a moment, clenched and unclenched her fists. “You failed to mention that. You said a gift for a husband.”
“You did not ask.” The creature sucked its teeth. “Cannot answer unasked questions.”
“Well, you need to fix it. Fix him. Fix the farm.”
It sighed and sung, “Only wife can fix.”
Sucking air between her teeth, the farmer’s wife kicked the ground. “How exactly?”
“What’s dead must die, must be left to lie, and what’s alive will thrive…” It smiled a curled smile. “And survive.”
Her shoulders sagged. “You—you want me to kill…”
The wiswoad shrugged its small shoulders, clicked its tongue.
Sobs struggled out from between her lips and her fingers were there to catch them. The farmer’s wife collected her cries in her palms, then held them over her chest, and let go. When she opened her eyes, the wiswoad was gone.
The farm grew weary from the hill like an abandoned seed husk, mottled and dark and rotting. The animals, so beloved by her once-husband, were huddled and weak. Down the hill, the fields were cracked and dying, and there was the farmer tending them though there was nothing left to tend.
Straw poked from between his teeth, he whistled and walked with a grin on his face and a spring in his step. An ache tremored where her heart should have been and the back of her throat burned.
“Just straw and wood,” she whispered.
The closer she got to her husband, the heavier her eyelids became, the more she shook, ached, and the more her heart fell to her stomach, heavy like a clod of earth.
When she reached him, he opened his arms but the farmer’s wife shook her head. She turned from him and hobbled further up the hillside. He followed, as she knew he would.
“Just straw and wood.”
The apple tree stood dead in front. In its branches sat the crow, whose feathers had dulled and fallen as if it were a tree making way for winter. As they approached—the farmer’s wife and her straw husband—it let out a mournful caw and swept clumsily away.
“Fetch me an apple, would you?” asked the farmer’s wife, barely more than a whisper.
“Anything for you, my pet,” came her husband’s reply.
And he turned, and he stretched—
And as her life slipped between the lines of her skin and her breath grew raspy and short, the farmer’s wife struck the flint she carried always in her apron and set her straw husband aflame.
After the fire, when there was nothing left of her husband or the tree, the farmer’s wife swept the ash from her true-husband’s grave. Beneath the remnants of straw and bough, there sat an apple—deep red and perfect. She picked it up, warm like a heart, and closed her eyes.
Down the hill, the farm was lush and green.