The forest gave Catalina the road, as she stepped under its boughs; for it was not a sleeping forest. It had its coat of thorns for the wood-cutter folk, the high path for wagons, lush trails made right for foragers. It had creeks for beasts and travelers; the occasional outcropping for when it rained. It had monsters for those that needed eating.
And it had the road for girls like her.
She was running from something, in her fine red dress embroidered with flowers. She carried it in her chin cut like a cliff’s edge thrust out to crack the sea. In her hands forced so loose; refusing to clench. She carried it in her hard eyes that would not look back. She carried it all the way up the hill and into the trees, despite the weakness in her left leg that left her limping and leaning heavily on the cane her brother had carved her.
A cane she dropped before she crossed the treeline, because it would not serve her here, even if it smoothed her gait. And keeping it would not serve him, either. She didn’t let herself pause.
One foot before the other.
To find the Witch, one must stride the edge of nowhere. Falter and be left there alone in the forest.
Walk the road, and earn a favor. Ask a gift. Be careful what you ask for. The Witch will give it.
There were things taught to children by the forest.
For Catalina the road was a kind and dangerous thing, painted skulls set in tree knots and nestled atop roots; a few hanging low, hooked on vines or bent down branches, shaking slightly in the lazy wind. Every now and then she saw a butterfly perched beside them or a bee resting somberly in the socket of an eye. Moss and stone stuck up here and there like scales, peppering the trail ahead.
She didn’t waver, even as the day grew dark and the sun forgot where to find her. Even as she tripped, and her knee twisted and buckled, and pain like fire gnawed at muscle to force her down. A wolf of pain chewing at her leg, up and down, like to snap the bone, and she answered it with sneers, but she made no sound.
There was no rule against sound. You could scream or cry, sing or laugh, on the road. But she didn’t wish to, so she crushed from her throat everything but the sound of breath and the occasional grunt.
So Catalina pushed herself up and off of tree after tree, even when she felt her dress tear. And as hours, or minutes, or some other measure of time, passed, her eyes stung, her heart pounded, her mouth went dry; but she did not pause.
By the end, the forest was a dark thing, welcoming and shadowed. The only light was in the skulls, blue and yellow and red and green, painted and glittered and glistening with unreflections of a light she couldn’t see. Until, of course, she could.
She fell into the Witch’s home with a half-cursed gasp and too much blinking against the light that hung down from... Catalina wasn’t sure. Only that she caught herself on a table, if you could call a great log cut in half a table.
All around her was wood, as though they were inside a cavern made of a tree, a great chamber, rising up and up until it simply ended in a wreath of half-hinted leaves and branches, sunlight falling through like a mist, foaming down the walls.
Those walls were hung with shallow pots and flowers, some living, some dried and hung from strings; with animal hides stretched on racks; with three great beehives that gave an audible buzz built straight into the wood and spilling honey in long strips down into what looked like birdbaths.
There were several large tables, some filled, some not; a cot laid out in the corner beside a deep-set fireplace with a single large pot hanging above it. And everything smelled of honey and woodsmoke and ash.
“Well,” she breathed out, forcing herself to stand, bracing herself on the edge of the table. And her eyes caught on the stack of paintings in the corner, strange things laid on flat wood, of women and men atop crawling bursting writhing masses of color and texture and—
Something else, she couldn’t name. And then of course, the Witch herself. In a green and sleeveless dress that ran to the floor and almost into it, burly arms, and long black hair tied into a high tail.
The Witch hadn’t reacted as Catalina stumbled in, which Catalina was grateful for. She kept grinding something in a large stone bowl, hands and arms dyed orange, with streaks of red and yellow. She was humming a strange sound that had bone in it somewhere, or teeth, and bees all around them seemed to swell with it, carrying petals and other small things to her or away.
“Indeed,” the Witch answered her, with a half smile, glancing over her shoulder now, and Catalina froze.
“Either it’s exactly like you expected,” the Witch continued “or nothing at all. And either way it’s comforting, and rather unnerving at once. No? You really can take a moment to get comfortable, dear.”
The Witch’s words were honeysuckle mild, but Catalina twitched anyways; as if they were barbed. Something in her stomach twisted, knotlike with embarrassment, and she felt hot beneath the sheen of sweat that’d started to cool on her. She hadn’t come so far to be teased, or mocked. She didn’t need to rest!
“I—” she started to say, and then swallowed hard, words crumbling to gravel as the Witch laughed.
It was a bright sound in the smooth light, and the Witch turned. Catalina wished she hadn’t. Her eyes didn’t have a color. They weren’t white or pale, or even mirrors, there was no milk to them. They were...
She wasn’t sure. Made of sight? Made of seeing. And in them she saw her own road, in reverse. All of the skulls, a cane set down, back down over the hill, down to the village, out to the cemetery and—
The bees laughed with their witch, a flurrying spiral above her head, spinning the shadows of the room like a top, and Catalina flinched. The hand not holding herself up, carefully flat against her thigh. She didn’t look away, even as the Witch spoke, and those eyes showed her herself, and other things.
“Catalina de la Rosa. There has been a Witch in the forest since before Death held court on the Blue Hill; since the time bees had warlords, before they elected their very first queens. Since there have been axes to threaten trees. And I am she,” the Witch said, and her voice was moss; the soft thing scarabs think will eat the world.
“Some have come with fire, and some have come with fear, and some with grief, and many with all three. And all of them have been brave. I have not mocked any of them. You are known by your road, and I know you. You seek, you walk, you earn the gift.”
Catalina swallowed again, seeing the time she’d taught herself to swim in the quiet river that ran past the village, head ducking under the water over and over again. “I, I’m sorry. It’s been a long day, with, well...” She left it there, then bit her lip. “I don’t want to talk about it. The cemetery, any of it... Is that alright?”
The Witch broke their gaze, and Catalina could see she was smiling as she turned back to the stone. “All you have to do, is ask, or leave. And then all you must do is listen, and watch. To follow the road, as it were,” she said.
Catalina nodded, gathering her thoughts and shifting till she leaned back against the table, reaching down to hike the skirt of her dress up enough to reach her knee. There she started to massage, easing the tension as much as she could, trying to press back the wolf of it.
The two of them were quiet for a while, as Catalina... she didn’t quite need to deliberate. She knew what she’d heard, what she wanted, all of it.
“After this, if I do this, I cannot go home. I must wander, or find someplace new, except for days like today. And... you can’t tell me how it will change me. But it will, all the stories say so. And it might be terrible, but I’ll get what I’ve asked for. I don’t think I believe that you try to trick people with what they ask. If you did, well, the road would be easier,” Catalina reasoned, thoughtfully, working it through aloud as the Witch ground and hummed at bees.
There was a louder hum of something like agreement, from the Witch.
“And so you have a question, for me,” the Witch said in her moss of a voice.
Catalina didn’t hesitate, and the words came out a little sharp and fast for it. “Would you paint my death away? Into the wood? I don’t know... they don’t tell you what will happen. Only that there’s a cost, that you change. I don’t know if that’s for you, or part of the magia, but...” Her face flushed again, and the words tripped over themselves without touching her lips.
“’...but will you make me everlasting?’” the Witch finished, for her, her body still.
Catalina wasn’t sure if the Witch meant it to be as ominous as it actually came out. So she nodded. Her mouth was still dry.
“Please. Do I— do I need to tell you why?” Her voice did not tremble. She was absolutely sure. Though she wasn’t sure if she could explain. Her father wouldn’t have understood, or her mother. Her brother certainly wouldn’t. She felt almost bad about that.
But there were always letters.
“We will both know why, if the painting takes. And if it does not, the forest always has a need for monsters. And your reasons will not matter. Do you understand? If you stray, if you doubt, if you cannot hold the way—” The Witch let the words lie there, picking up a rag and rubbing her hands down; washing them in a basin that Catalina wasn’t entirely sure had been there before she needed it. The pigment retreated from her skin with an apparent reluctance.
“I understand. They didn’t tell me, but I... that makes sense. You must walk on the edge of nothing. And if you falter—” Catalina nodded and shrugged at the same time, her heart hammering against her ribs, dancing with a fever-hope of need.
She would not die. Or she would. But it’d be decided here. And it would be decided. No failings of the heart or trailing-off coughs. No accident would steal her from those around her. She pushed herself off from the table, fists tight against the pain in her leg.
“Good. Find somewhere comfortable to sit, or stand, to lie, wherever you like. And—you need to wash up?” The Witch nodded firmly, tossing the rag down and looking at her with an expression that was mostly... Catalina wasn’t sure exactly. There was something in the eyes that she didn’t understand. The way they wrinkled at the edge.
Mostly she was just glad she the Witch wasn’t making her wait. Anybody else would’ve questioned her, back home. But here there was no need for the Witch to make certain of her choices. If she wasn’t sure, she wouldn’t be her anymore. The forest would have made a different place for her.
Catalina shook her head. “No. I earned this dirt. I’m proud of it.” She said that part almost fliply but uncompromising. There were tears in the dress, and she had splinters in her palms, and her good leg had a shallow cut in it. But she hadn’t stopped. And she had not laid down.
It suited her fine.
The Witch laughed again, just as eerily as the first time and just as accompanied by the bees. She vaguely gestured at Catalina, a handwave urging her to move as the Witch glided smoothly through her own chaotic space, seemingly unperturbed by the length of her dress. She pulled an easel from what looked like a pile of small foliage, setting it out with a practiced snap.
As Catalina started to move along the table, looking around for where she might settle, the Witch pulled out a single large wooden canvas, a flat and pale-brown thing from behind the finished paintings. Paintings of strangers that Catalina had only heard of vaguely before; the others who wanted their deaths painted into the wood. Finally, she found her way to the Witch’s bed and settled there, smoothing her dress a little before giving up on it and leaning back to watch the Witch finish preparing.
“Anasael, come now, it’s time to paint—” the Witch called, setting the canvas to the easel.
Catalina tensed, a hiss echoing somewhere in the room at the call. Every bee in the great room fell silent, finding purchase or roost somewhere and going still. After long moments a snake emerged from beneath the Witch’s bed, passing just beside Catalina’s feet. She was careful not to move, not to breathe or flinch, as it traveled on by.
A long and wily snake. With each scale a different color, and each color a different hue, and each hue in a different shade. A snake as long as the room itself, slithering up and wrapping around its mistress, climbing up and then draping from tables and the back of the easel she’d set up, leaving behind a half shadowed trail of color on the every surface as it moved.
“My palette,” the Witch at least partially explained, as the snake turned its head to regard her, tasted the air, then turned its head and settled it seemingly in the air, its eyes closed. A lazy, quiet, half-hiss arose from it as it relaxed, and the Witch kept talking. “He helps give life to the paints, his family has grown quite proficient at the task over the years. A few of his cousins even moved down south, to expand the trade.”
The Witch spoke idly as she turned in a circle inside Anasael’s broad coils, assessing where each spectrum of color was. She held her hands above them, fingers waving as if playing an instrument, tapping the air around colors she might need. “I will paint you, that is how the magia works. At its heart, it’s simple. You will hold my gaze. You must not look away. And you must not fear. You understand? I will show you faces, the faces of what comes of this gift you ask. If you can wear them as your own, you will be free of death. If you cannot—”
A shrug punctuated her words as she trailed off, and Catalina took a deep breath. She thought for a moment there should be something more portentous about what they were doing. Clouds obscuring the light, a dark looming presence, some sort of ritual or ceremony as the Witch began to eye her sitting there. A thickening in the air.
Or even an explanation of what exactly the Witch meant by showing her a ‘face’.
But it seemed it was more like the road; simply a strangeness laying there like it’d always been. The Witch didn’t much seem to care about how Catalina sat either, or held herself, or other things that Catalina was rather sure mattered to most painters. Even so, she sat as still as she could and tried to clear her mind. Or focus it, like she had for the road, on the long walk from home.
As she braced herself, the Witch deftly stroked a brush over one of Anasael’s many scales, putting color to bristle after long moments spent examining them. She lifted it with a nod, before lifting her gaze as well and meeting Catalina’s eyes with her own the color of things happening.
The Witch didn’t ask if she was ready; there were no last-minute soulful gazes, no final questions. The moment the brush touched wood, Catalina could not speak, and she could not move except to breathe. Staring deeper and deeper into the Witch’s eyes, she felt sounds seem to fall away; the low hum of the bees, the ambience of bristles across the cedar plank the Witch had taken up. Until all she could hear was heartbeat and sibilance, a strange and undulating noise that fogged away sensation.
The scratch or drag of the brush was silent, as were any other noises the Witch might be making, present and tucked away from Catalina’s ears. But she knew the brush moved. In the peripheral of her eyes so trapped by the Witch’s, she could see it, and when it touched wood, she could feel it. Something dragging through her and under her and into her, blurring her off to the edges of her skin. Till she felt herself like a puddle being swept over with a broom.
The first face did not frighten her, and it lasted only a moment on the Witch’s features. And Catalina was glad of it being the first, so she could understand. Nothing overtly changed, exactly. The Witch did not become a wolf with a goat’s horns; her skin did not petal away, opening to the bone. It simply became like her eyes, with the wrinkle of flesh and the crest of bone, with the curve of her face, all holding more. A map and a memory in it.
In the first face, she watched her brother fade and go, just as they’d seen with their mother, and their father. And the blacksmith’s daughter, whose smile made her giddy, too. And the boy she’d danced with last fall, turn frail as sticks and break from life.
Catalina witnessed half a hundred people she might meet, might love, know her then wither away from her. Falling, falling, as she danced, as she walked. Ever forward, up the hill but never over, down the road, and never off it. She met the Witch’s eyes and knew this. And knew how it would hurt. How she still hurt.
But it was only pain. Whether a wolf, a storm, or a whole countryside of it, it was still only pain.
She saw her brother’s face, at the cemetery. The craggy broken open-ness of it. It wasn’t even the tears, it was the way he looked torn, as if some strange facet of him had gone flat inside, and empty. Her stomach hurt from that look, turned in on itself, and from that she might have flinched if she hadn’t made herself.
That face lasted only instants, Catalina swore, but her body ached again, her leg throbbing. She was covered in a sheen of sweat. And the Witch’s hands were covered in flecks of at least seven or eight colors of paint.
Still she gazed ahead, didn’t fold away or pull from the Witch’s eyes. She sagged into the stillness there, and the sibilance in the air and her heart pulsed in a steady time, tapping each other out.
She wasn’t sure she understood the second face at first. It showed itself in just the same way: the meaning of the Witch’s face transforming, more than anything else. But it took longer to translate into anything.
The sight of herself walking, unrested and unweary. The seasons changing around her in blinks, in less than blinks. Years passed in the space of a full drawn breath. In this face Catalina saw herself skipping stones into a lake whenever she passed.
Until an island of them rose, each of her stones piled on top of the others.
She saw herself bear a child, and a whole city of her descendants in a thousand years, all with echoes of her face. She saw herself deepening into the world, until every twitch of her hand sent ripples. Even if she hid her name, and hid herself, she saw the unease dawn in others at a woman who knew a hundred trades and spoke more languages than they knew names for and moved with a dozen lifetimes of practice at it. In the face, the whole scope of her twisted.
Catalina watched as she became unrecognizably herself, every habit worn into the color of her hair, into features as strong as her chin and her gait and her hands that would not clench, would not claw. She saw every flaw flower into virtue, and every virtue break jagged and harsh into flaws.
And she saw her eyes become things without color, despite their soft brown sweep. There was too much in them. Too much weight; a pressure, a knowledge, that crushed out the pigment, crushed out the air around them. Until her gaze was a thing that made and broke people that held it.
Cracked open hearts, on plain faces. Ordinary faces. She would still leave those in her wake. Pressure, presence, could break a thing as easily as emptiness.
It was an awful, accruing, weight. What was the point? If she wouldn’t escape it. The longer she stared at the face, the more she saw the breaking and breaking. It rolled on, over and again.
Her body went tense as she tried to see past the face on the Witch’s face. Past everything held in the Witch’s eyes.
Was there something beneath the Witch’s gaze too? Did her eyes have another color? Did it matter the Witch anymore?
The Witch’s expression, beneath the face, did not change. Catalina could see that much. It was a smooth thing, despite the wrinkles of her face. Not precisely uncaring; it wasn’t cold. There was a furrow to her brow, ever slightly; her mouth was set but not flat or loose. If she spoke, or hummed, or sighed, it didn’t show. And Catalina could not hear.
She continued to paint, stripping over Catalina’s image in lines and strokes that still left her feeling swept through. But she could not see deeper; she wasn’t sure if it was magia or exhaustion or something else.
There wasn’t a lot she understood. Except that someone, something, expected her to be afraid of something terrible. Instead of angry at it, or willing to accept it. So!? She’d be less human as time went by. She’d be no less a person. Just more dangerous. Everything that lived grew.
At least she wouldn’t leave things half done! If she died, that was it, she was done in the world. Which might be for some people, for most people. But she couldn’t imagine it. There were always too many things to do.
Normal, ordinary, impossible things. Skirts to darn, and sheep to care for, gardens to plant, books to puzzle out, to borrow or trade for. There would be nieces and nephews, grand nieces and nephews to baby. Children. Lovers’ legacies. There would be so much to see, so many ways to learn.
The third face bled out of the second, and embers blew into a whole flame of rage as she realized what it showed. She did not quite register the bemused tilt of the Witch’s head, as her own expression went all into sharp and jagged angles.
Whatever Catalina set her hand to, as permanent as she was, would not be permanent in turn. That was it. And there was nothing she could do to change it. All things would turn, and she would walk through it. No wars would end forever, no pains would always be eased; there would be more pains, later; what she saved would not be saved forever.
Her brother would not bury her. But he might his first spouse, or child, his grandchild. His children would still break open around his death, or he around theirs. Her eternity would not spare him facing death at all.
But she’d never thought it would.
“Just—” Catalina’s mouth moved, but her gaze didn’t waver, even as it teared up, even as her head wanted to snap back to laugh or spit or defy. It felt like talking through cotton stuffed in her mouth. She couldn’t hear herself, or how the words came out.
Only that they bubbled up all hot and liquid and twisting in her, demanding their way out. She wasn’t afraid! She wasn’t afraid of what would come. Of messing up. There were always consequences. It coiled in her, until it was boiling out of her mouth in words.
“What’s scary about that!?” she demanded. ”Things will change. I will too. Things will end. I just don’t want to. So what if I can’t protect people from every pain? Just because someone will get sick again doesn’t mean you don’t take care of them now. I just don’t want them to get broken open because I die. I couldn’t do anything about that, I’ll be dead. And—and damn that! Over the hill with that, but I won’t follow! I know what I’m asking for!” Her voice cut at her own lips, and the words hung there for a moment.
She couldn’t hear the hiss in the air, and she felt her heartbeat more in her throat, in her body, than in pressure beating at her ears. It was hard to see past the weight of helplessness, the stroke of the brush through her body, over and over and tremors of it, once it stopped.
And then the Witch coughed. “Asked for, Catalina de la Rosa. The gift you asked for.”
That’s when Catalina realized the Witch had set the brush down. That both the Witch and Anasael were regarding her without terrible intent; without weight and age and purpose. Just looking. She was sticky with sweat, her limbs trembling slightly, her dress clinging to her awkwardly. And she wasn’t held by anything at all; the Witch was stretching her arms out, popping her shoulder with an audible sound and a grimace.
The painting was done.
She didn’t feel anything different till she stood, pain snapping into her leg, bear-trap swift and just as cutting. And... immortality was not any distance from the pain. If anything it felt sharper, clearer. But the fear of it was gone. She tensed against tensing, ready to push back on the bone-deep instinct. Which she’d felt before when tired. But it didn’t come. She felt aware. Cool as the bees began to buzz around them, their wings twirling the air into lazy currents.
And she realized she was smiling, soft and wondering, as she lurched across the room, smearing paint over her dress as she pulled the Witch into a hug and thanked her. The Witch actually squeaked in reply, half stepping-back to brace herself, even as Anasael hissed in amusement and retreated back beneath the bed.
Catalina didn’t stay to watch the paint dry. She washed herself quickly; borrowed a dress in green that looked like it’d been made for her and waiting. And she hugged the Witch a second time, and told her goodbye. There was no rush in getting to know each other, not really. And, she wanted to not see the Witch’s face, for a little while.
She was fairly certain the Witch understood. The Witch handed her a few letters, for the other painted people in case she met them. Apparently, it was easy to recognize them. Catalina did not think about what her eyes looked like; if they remained the same for now.
The Witch even let her write a quick letter of her own to her brother, so he would not be afeared for her. She couldn’t return home, not for a long while yet, but she was certain he could meet up with her here and there. The bees or one of Anasael’s cousins would deliver it, for which she promised to bring some new flowers or a few tasty mice their way when she visited again.
Then Catalina left by the same door she’d entered. Just outside it, she found her cane waiting, leaned up against the wood as if she’d set it there herself.
With that, she put foot to the road, and she walked.