By Susan E. Wagner
A sister and brother, young and unspoiled, lived with their mother and father in a little house at the edge of a dark woods. The children worked in the fields helping their parents so the family could eat.
One year there was a terrible drought and the crops died in their field. The chickens stopped laying eggs and starvation approached. The river was such a small trickle and the sun so merciless, that drops of water were drawn to the sky in front of their eyes.
One day, the entire family sat listless by their front door. The boy sprawled out on the ground, uncaring about the ants searching his body for food. The girl leaned against their mother, her lips tightly shut, as if to keep in every bit of moisture.
The father sat deep in thought, trying with all his ability to think of a way to save his family. But he was too tired and too hungry to think clearly, and he could feel the desire to live begin to leave his heart.
Out of the woods a woman came, carrying a large sack. It was so large and heavy she was bent over double to carry it. The family watched her as she made her way toward them.
When the woman finally came to their home, she set the bag carefully on the ground and took a rag from her pocket to wipe her brow.
“Hello, there,” the woman said. “Could you spare a small bit of water?”
The wife reluctantly gave her a ladle of water from the little they had.
“Thank you for this kindness,” the woman said.
This brought a small reaction from the father who invited her to sit.
“Have you any news?” he asked the traveler. “Is there any word about when this terrible drought might end?”
“That question has no answer. We are all waiting,” the woman replied.
The woman took a seat on the father’s log as the father pushed his son to rise and bring another log to sit upon. The children lost interest in the traveler when she had no news. They fell asleep upon the grass.
The parents asked the woman how others were faring with the drought. The traveler told them of the deaths taking place in the towns.
“You are lucky here in the country,” she said. “At least you have something left, that trickle of water, to sustain you.”
The parents were too tired to argue with the woman. They knew no trickle of water would save them. The mother began to weep tears of salt, her body nearly out of moisture.
Later the parents said they didn’t understand what was happening. They were too tired, too hungry, too thirsty to think clearly. That witch of a woman took advantage of them. Though, in truth, when she offered the parents the bulging sack of food, filled with all kinds of candy and cake, they immediately agreed to her terms.
The drought ended shortly after this and eventually the village asked about the children. Rumors flew that they died from thirst or starvation. But no, a husband and wife out searching for mushrooms, saw the woman with the children in the woods. The parents later they told the villagers the woman had tricked them. That she described the food in in her sack in such detail that their starving bodies could not resist. The woman wanted the children in exchange. She said she could care for them at her cottage in the woods. To their shame, they turned them over to her without even a question escaping their lips.
When the villagers heard all this, they searched the woods for the children, finding the cottage where the old woman lived. A younger woman lived there now.
“I know nothing,” she said. “I came here after my family died from hunger and thirst. There was no old woman and no children.”
The villagers believed her and left the cottage to continue searching.
The younger woman closed her door and started to cook a pot of soup with the leftover bones of the children. She snacked on candy as she added vegetables and meat in an old stewpot. These children gave her many more years of youth for which she was grateful.
In the village, the parents were shunned. Villagers swore to always remember the children and the price one pays for losing their humanity. They put a statue of the children in the middle of the town square and every year at the harvest festival they told the story of the young children.
The shamed parents refused food after the statue was raised. No water passed their lips, and they tore their clothing to shreds, crying for forgiveness and mercy. Whether they received it, no one can say. Few cared. But the children of the village sometimes see tears in the statue’s eyes which fall upon their faces to the fountain at their feet.
Susan E. Wagner is the author of Unmuted: Voices on the Edge, a collection of hybrid poetry. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including, Agape Review, Fudoki Magazine, and Aphelion: The Webzine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Three of her poems were in the recent exhibition, Unique Minds: Creative Voices, at Princeton University. Susan works as a writing coach and is also an editor with The Writing Center at Pearl S. Buck International. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Lindenwood University. Follow her at http://www.susanewagner.com, Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org