forest of whispers
Copyright © 2014 by Jennifer Murgia
Sale of the paperback edition of this book without its cover is unauthorized.
Spencer Hill Press, LLC
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
Contact: Spencer Hill Press, PO Box 247, Contoocook, NH 03229, USA
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First Edition: September 2014.
Forest of Whispers: a novel / by Jennifer Murgia – 1st ed.
Summary: A teenage girl is caught up in the witch hysteria in 17th century Bavaria.
Cover design by Lisa Amowitz
Interior layout by Kate Kaynak
Published in association with MacGregor Literary, Inc.
ISBN 978-1-937053-56-7 (paperback)
ISBN 978-1-937053-58-1 (e-book)
Printed in the United States of America
Also by Jennifer Murgia:
Between These Lines
For my mother
Related to European villages of old, the term “Hedge Witch” comes from the fact that the average village was surrounded by a hedge or woods. Beyond that hedge was unknown land, beyond their known perception…i.e., the Other World. The village witches of this era usually lived just beyond or just before this hedge. The hedge was a metaphor for someone who practiced shamanistic arts—a walker between the worlds.
Pronunciation Guide to the German Words:
– (BOO-ter-BROTE) – Bread and butter
– (shan-tur-EL-a) – A golden mushroom found
in the Black Forest of Germany
– (guh-NAY-dig) – Gracious, mercy
– (METS-ger-eye) – Butcher’s shop
– (MOO-tee) – Mother
Öffnen Sie die Tür!
– (OOF-nen ZEE dee TOUR!) – Open
– (SHET-zee-en) – Dear one, honey
– (shoomf-NOO-deln) – A thick, rolled noodle
– (shtra-pa-DOE) – A torture device in which the
subject is hoisted by rope and allowed to fall its full length
– (DAH-ler) – A large, official silver coin used in
Austria, Germany, and Switzerland
– (TALL-kair-shuh) – Deadly nightshade, also
known as belladonna
y feet fly across the soft ground, away from the footsteps that chase me. With a pounding heart and my skirt gathered in my hands, I dodge my pursuers and run into the haunted forest.
There is just enough time to squeeze myself under a low branch, and while the pines are thick enough to swallow my small frame, my heart beats a painful rhythm against my ribs as the first of my pursuers inches closer to the edge of the path—closer to where I hide. Sap-coated needles glue themselves to my cheeks as I hug the closest branch and peer out. One of the boys, the fearless one, raises an arm to signal the direction he believes I’ve gone. But while his expression is hard, he doesn’t dare venture too far from the path; the trees are dark and foreboding, even for a determined boy with a fistful of pebbles.
“She’s gone,” he sighs.
“You mean vanished?” The second boy has joined him. His eyes are wide as he scans the sky, as if I have taken flight and disappeared altogether.
Blood trickles a thin line of red down my ankle where one of the small rocks nicked me, but this childish witch hunt does not frighten me. I am hidden—having outrun them, outsmarted them, like I always do. They call the forest
for a reason, and today it has proven true, hiding me well within its cage of branches, safe behind the fear it breathes and the animals who scream their devil calls.
Soon enough, the boys give up their chase and head back toward the village. When I am certain they cannot hear me, I pull myself free from the camouflage and stretch my limbs, noting the small welts that dot my arms. This is not the first time the boys have been cruel. After all, I am the strange girl who lives in the forest, apprentice to the one they say is a witch.
The boys’ backs become shadows as they cross the hedge, leaving me alone in the wild, dark space that borders the village—until something warm and unbidden kisses my ear. I turn quickly, spying nothing but the endless stretch of forest. Then it comes again—a whisper, a faint touch against my skin, the gentle glide of fingers through my hair. The trees are still. No breeze sweeps past, yet I am certain I am not alone.
My name carries on the air, its breathy tone so clear that I know this is not some trick of the mind or emotional game. This is real.
That is all I need for my body to react. My fear explodes inside me, and soon the village is far behind as I dash deeper into the forest, toward my home.
Come to me, Rune…
Against my will, I pause, knowing that what I do is a terrible risk. The snap of a twig startles me, and the birds in the trees fall silent. My arms are chilled in gooseflesh and I know that something,
is dreadfully close. There is movement, and beyond the needles and boughs I see what appears to be a tendril of hair as dark as pitch…as dark as mine. My breath stills inside me, though there is nothing I can do to calm the hammering of my pulse as it races through my veins, as if it too flees from the shadow forming within the trees.
The whisper comes again, closer and from all angles, pelting me harder than any stones those miserable boys could have thrown. It seeps beneath my skin and severs all that is rational from my mind, filling me with a sour horror. A howling wind wrenches itself free from the heart of the forest and sweeps closer, twisting loose branches, lifting tender roots. Leaves fall like rain around my head, swirling, taunting, wrapping me in arms that I feel but cannot see. And then, it is as if the leaves come to life, taking shape, fixing to an invisible, gentle curve of a cheek, the soft definition of lashes against translucent skin. My eyes snap shut and I will the ghostly image away, for I am not certain of anything anymore.
My breath catches in my throat and, somehow, I am able to open my eyes. I know well the tales of the dark forest and the shadows it keeps, for I live with them every day. For sixteen years, Matilde warned this day would come, and I was a fool to believe I could escape it—that I could escape
. For just as the forest appears calm and still and dark before my eyes, there is a land that sleeps within it. A land that separates the dead from the living with only a thin veil—a land my mother has woken from, seeking me at long last.
Perhaps it is the shuffling of the birds in their nests that gives me the courage to reach my hand out and test the cool air. I wiggle my fingers, and then, growing braver by the second, I test myself even further and whisper to what I cannot see.
Only stillness answers me, so I say it again, louder.
I turn my open hand a few times, clench and unclench my fist, and then…a touch grazes the back of my hand. I am startled at how it feels—so tender, so human—until it tightens to a grip so excruciating I fear my hand will be crushed before my very eyes. Four thick lines materialize upon my skin, resembling fingers. The sight leaves me breathless as fear seizes me. I yank my hand away, nearly stumbling into the thick ferns behind me.
In my ears, my breath is a frantic, terrible force as I run toward the tiny cottage. I hurl myself inside, but she has followed me and rattles against the door, begging to be let in. My fingers find the flimsy lock and work at it until it clicks in place, assuring that I am safe from what I fear the most, and soon, I find I am convincing myself that all is well. My morning gathering, the taunting boys—they have simply unnerved me, for there is nothing but gentle comfort in this room. Burning wood crackles in the hearth. Lavender, Coriander, and Blessed Thistle dry in bundles overhead. The pungent peel of the Bergamot orange boils in the kettle over the flames. Its citrusy aroma fills the room.
“Schätzchen,” Matilde looks up from the heavy table at the center of the room. Her eyes are cloudy with age and they linger on my face, surely seeing the fear I try so hard to conceal. “You’ve been out early.”
The fear I felt moments ago dissipates and, with a quick smile, I step away from the door and cross the room, lifting the edge of my dress against the table to reveal what I had collected in the woods just moments before the village boys found me.
“Five in all, not a bad clutch for this time of year, eh?” Matilde’s mouth grows wide, nearly all gums. With hands as dotted as the grouse’s eggs, she turns each one over, diligently inspecting for cracks. I am sure she hears my sigh of relief that my run through the trees hasn’t wasted our meal.
“Did you give thanks to the Mother, like I taught you?” she says, noticing the light-green stalks inside my pocket. I look down and smile at the herbs that have somehow survived the fury outside.
“Of course. You taught me that long ago.”
“And why, Schätzchen? Why must we always remain in good favor with the earth?”
I let out a quiet sigh. “We only take what is needed, never more. We should never be selfish with what the Sacred Mother provides for us.”
A smile creeps to her lips, and I know I’ve answered well. This lesson has been ingrained in me since I was a child, yet she still asks me to repeat it. I’d like to learn other lessons, though. I’d like to read the leaves at the bottom of our chipped cups instead of only seeing soggy tea. I’d like to tell the silly girls who sneak off into the woods that they will find love someday, like Matilde does.
Her gentle hand presses against my forehead, taking me by surprise, and I wait for the questions to come. Why was I in the forest so early? Why am I still trembling so?
My fear followed me home, Matilde
, I want to say, but I keep silent. I don’t give evidence to the one person who has the ability to sense the unseen.
“Rune,” Matilde says softly. “Sit with me.”
I cross the floor and hold onto her elbow, easing her into the old, worn rocker. Matilde lets her eyes close with a sigh, and I try to remember when she didn’t appear so frail.
“I’m an old woman, Rune.”
“You’re not old, Mutti,” I say back, smiling at the old joke. Matilde has been an old woman forever, it seems. I begin to pour the tea that is now ready, then hand her a cup of it, making sure her hands are still before I let go. I bite my lip as her eyes meet mine.
“I’ve taught you well, haven’t I? Well enough that you feel capable and strong?” she asks.
“Yes, you’ve taught me well, only…”
“Only?” A deep, guttural noise wells up from her throat, preventing her from finishing. I press my fingers to the bottom of the cup, gently lifting it, prompting her to take a sip. When her chest no longer heaves, and the rise and fall of it appears relaxed once again, the question is forgotten, but not by me.
Only I wish I could see the future like you can, Mutti
, I want to say, wishing with all my heart that the tiny tea leaves would tell me she’ll be all right. But I know they are dark and tea-logged and won’t offer any sort of fortune that will ease my worries. Her coughs have worsened these last few months, and I cannot bear to think of the day she is called home to our Mother. Matilde is the only mother I have ever known. How long will she and I have together? Will she see the next snowfall? Or will I spend the coldest, darkest days of the year alone in this little cottage?
I settle myself at her feet and feel her bony touch upon my shoulder. I am not ready to look up just yet, so I stare into the fire and will its heat to dry the threatening tears I hold back. But it is too late, and Matilde knows.