I didn’t want to go back into those woods. I didn’t trust them, and I suppose they didn’t trust me either. But deep down, I knew—I had to go. You can’t just stay at home, whispering to God on bended knee when your little sister’s been taken by a witch.
Police combed through the forest during the day but didn’t find anything. They wouldn’t of course. A witch takes people when they’re alone, not in groups, and then she hides away with her catch, tucked in the shadows of secrets and the heartbeat of mountains. That’s where witches live.
There wasn’t any explaining that to them though.
Against the charcoal sky, the moon looked swollen and sick—its glow, a jaundiced smudge. The stars disappeared long ago, scrubbed from our view by smog and light pollution, even out there. Pine trees scraped against the night. Their branches shivered and shook as some creature caught its prey or eluded capture, and I wondered which I would be that night.
Sneaking out of the house was the easy part. The fans and filters humming through the halls helped me get away without waking Mom and Dad. But out in the wild there was nothing to hide the whir of motors and wheeze of joints that followed my every step.
Near home was a network of trails that snaked all through the woods. I had a suspicion the witch kept away from them though, preying on those that veered from familiar paths, so I entered through the shrubs and the underbrush, my rigid body struggling to navigate the dense, unforgiving foliage.
I’d never been that far into the forest. Everything there felt alien and hungry. Curious. Honey mushrooms reached like bulbous fingers from the base of trees. Eyes flashed in the starlight, then disappeared. Once I felt I was really in the thick of it, I stopped. “Travel Buddy,” I called, and a light shone from the walking stick at my side. “Guide me home.”
“A-home we go, ol’ chum!” it replied in mock-sailor voice. Travel Buddy projected a red arrow in front of me, directing me to turn back the way I had come. I ignored it, continuing forward with the arrow hovering in front of me, throbbing like a headache and pointing right at me. A hard thing to miss, hopefully.
I could still remember the harsh, happy cadence of Mom’s voice—Happy Birthday—as Dad placed the Travel Buddy in my lap, unwrapped. This glorified walking stick was too grand, too impressive a gift to burden with wrapping paper.
The body was a chrome black steel, and branching from the handle was a touchscreen interface which promised navigation and health monitors. At one end of the handle was a projecting bulb, and on the other a round red button that said SOS. This is so if you fall down or can’t find your way home we can find you, they said, spilling out their mouths with pride. Dad demanded a test drive with way too much enthusiasm, so me and Travel Buddy walked the perimeter of the house.
The whole time the walking-stick-with-apps flashed and whirred and buzzed at me. It warned me of approaching obstacles and changes in terrain, of my rising heart rate; it told me to calm down in patronizing tones, instructed me how to breathe—in and out, slowly—and informed me of my muscle tension around the handle.
I flung the stupid thing to the ground.
Should I call for help? it asked.
Now I leaned on Travel Buddy as I made my way across the dense forest. Now I needed it. I needed its flashing lights and loud voice to catch the witch’s attention; its emergency locator to help them find her lair once she took me. I guess that made them right in a way.
The same birthday I got Travel Buddy, Suyin gave me a catcher’s mitt and ball, wrapped awkwardly but with care in the recycled skins of paper grocery bags. She taught me how to catch and throw. She taught me that I could.
That was the thought I carried with me as I moved towards the meadow she used to dance in. The last place she was seen.
Three days earlier, I’d come to tell her it was time to go; Mom wanted us back for dinner. Instead, I found myself speechless.
There, in the center of the field, she danced and shone like a fairy in the amber rays of sunset. Her thin frame twirled and arched through a riot of crimson poppies and violet lupines, and it might have been the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I ducked behind a boulder squatting just outside the meadow, and watched with envy the sharp precision of her movements, the command she had over her body. What it must be like, I wondered.
Everyone knew Suyin was special. You could tell just by looking that she was a Naturall. No deformities, degenerative bones, prosthetics or augmentations. Mom actually got to hold her the day she was born. But even though she was so special, she never looked at me any different. She never saw the metal plates, the circuits, wires, and hoses as ugly things to spot and then turn away from.
She, more than anyone, made me feel special.
Behind the stone I watched her, and before long I was mimicking her stances, following her intricate movements, clumsy but determined. The brisé looked easiest. I could see just what it required, where to start and how to end. Maybe I could do that one. Maybe I could be beautiful too.
I counted down from five and then I counted down again until I’d worked up my courage. And when I jumped, it was with everything in me.
For a few seconds, I was free. Nothing weighed me down or pushed against me. It was me and the sky, and in that fleeting moment, I tried to tap and cross my feet like a dancer. My legs weren’t fast enough though. They tangled before I landed, dropping me to the dirt.
“Tommy?!” Suyin ran my direction. I had ruined it—her dance and mine.
I hobbled to my feet before she had the chance to help me. “I’m fine,” I said. “I just tripped.” Ignoring my protests, she held my arm while I found my footing.
“Don’t go, dearie,” said a throaty voice nearby. “We have so much work ahead of us.”
That’s when I saw that the boulder I’d hidden behind was actually a very tall woman sitting with her back to me. She turned to face us, revealing eyes blacker than ink, skin craggy and worn, and rigid, loose-hanging clothes the same matted gray as her hair.
“I’m sorry,” I said, startled by her presence. “I didn’t see you.”
“Oh my, is there a person there?” Her black eyes squinted in my direction. “There you are! Hmmph. Not a person. Not really. No wonder I couldn’t see you, sneaky, sneaky.”
Trans-human. That’s what I’m called, somehow. The word never felt right though, then least of all. Trans is too high, too grand for someone so cobbled together. So is human, I suppose. If I get hurt, I’m as like to spill oil as blood. That’s why the witch didn’t see me. She didn’t see a person, she just saw parts.
We need a new word.
“I’ve come to bring you home,” I told Suyin.
“Sorry, lad,” said the witch. “You can’t take something from the forest without leaving something behind.” Her smile tore like a wound across her face.
“Hi friend! Turn around!” chimed Travel Buddy beside me. I turned up its volume and carried on.
The deeper forest was a community of conifers, standing tall and independent, or else broken and devastated, leaning decrepit against their stronger brothers and sisters. It was rich with the songs of birds and frogs and insects.
Then the hooting of owls echoed through the woods, and all that noise just died. Became so quiet you could almost hear the forest breathe.
In the old stories, witches could see through the eyes of owls and possess them at will. I thought of the bodies that sometimes turned up in the forest, mummified in sunbaked saliva with only the bones and artificialities remaining: pacemakers, prosthetics—medical grade plastics melted and fused to bone.
I wondered if they were alive when she ate them.
This was a terrible idea, I realized. I turned off Travel Buddy’s navigation, the arrow blinking off before me. I slowed my pace, eyes scanning the canopy above, when some angry limb caught my pant leg and tore a wide gash, revealing the glint of metal underneath. It was like the forest had said, “I see you,” to the deepest, scaredest part of me.
The sound came again. Who? Who? rang through the woods. This time, I spotted one perched in a tree. It called out, Who? Who? in every direction like an accusation.
My heart rattled in my chest like a pebble in a shoe. I struggled for breath—rhythmic gulps in then out—but my lungs weren’t used to the unfiltered air, the free-floating particles of pollen and dust. My legs turned stiff, and after a few short steps they locked up completely.
That’s what fear could do. All those firing neurons mucked up signals to the rest of me, trapping me in my head with all my wishes and all the good they’d do. It’s how the witch got away with Suyin—why I could do nothing to save her.
I had to think my way through it, focusing on one leg at a time—Left. Right. Left. Travel Buddy helped, holding me upright and limping along beside me. Up above, the owl stretched its wings and dove away, but before I could catch my relief, a loud mechanical voice said: “Do not be afraid. You are in a safe place. Breathe in… and out. Slow…”
Who?! Who?! called from ahead. Who?! Who?! answered behind. My heart fell to somewhere deep inside me. I kept moving, quickening my pace.
“Do not be afraid. You are in a safe place.”
A piercing shriek cut through the air, scraping up my spine. Still, I focused on running. Left leg, right leg, faster, faster.
“Breathe in… and out. Slow.”
Over my shoulder I could see the determined avian face, the black eyes, the sharp body diving impossibly fast and almost upon me. Left, right. Faster! Faster! The owl grew larger as it swooped—now the size of a dog, now a person, now a car.
My left leg lost pace. I staggered into a tree and fell, gasping for air but there wasn’t any. The last thing I remembered before blacking out was being gripped by powerful talons, and the startling sight of enormous wings.
In the black, I dreamt what I always do, some memory unearthed only when I sleep—the wet dark, the muffled thrum of pumps and gurgle of churning chemicals, the tightness, the warmth. And then the suffocating, the hunger, the sucking and squirming and struggle for sustenance.
The air is sick, the water tainted, the food lacks nutrients. The natural world tried to cut me off before I was born, tried to suffocate me in the womb, to draw the life out of developing organs, to drink the marrow before the bones had set.
Breathing is like sucking from a clogged straw. It won’t give, it won’t give, it won’t…
I woke up coughing and choking on air. The world was still black, and the shuffling of heavy feet on hard earth told me I was not alone.
“Who?! Who?!” the shrill voice echoed around me. “Who are we going to eat tonight?!” Two large black eyes appeared, darker even than the darkness around them. “You! You!” the voice called. “You we will eat tonight!”
I couldn’t move. My arms and legs were bound and I was lying on some hard, ropy bed.
“Where’s my sister?!”
“She’s here, young lad. She’s here. Wilting like a flower. They’re so hard to feed when they’re young. A little starving is necessary to waken her true hunger.” She clacked her gray teeth at me and grinned.
“Let us go.”
The witch just laughed. “I’d hoped for something with more meat on the bone. And there’s so much in the way. These contraptions on your body, are they not so very much? A burden to you, a hindrance to me.”
The eyes bobbed up and down as the hag walked around me. “You will be a disappointing meal. Quite right. Quite right. On that we agree, quite right! But these woods aren’t what they used to be, and the hungry eat what’s left to them.”
She drew closer—two disembodied eyes, all pupils. In them, I saw distant flames flicker and flash and grow. The fire behind her eyes swelled and soon our surroundings were lit by an orange glow, its warmth blooming beneath me and nipping at my back.
In the firelight, I saw that we were in a large underground chamber. A witch’s burrow. The tall, slender witch hunched forward with her knobby back scraping against the high ceiling. In the corner of the chamber, Suyin was tied up, dirty, and unconscious.
The witch held up a shining, steel rod. Travel Buddy. Somehow the stupid thing made it there with me. The witch examined its sleek metal body, the domed unlit bulb protruding from the handle, and the big red SOS button.
“Don’t push that,” I told her. “Whatever you do…”
She hit me across the chest with it.
Pain branched through my limbs. I screamed, but the witch wasn’t listening. Her large eyes were directed at Suyin, waiting for a reaction.
“Argh. Not enough,” the witch grumbled. The dome remained unlit. If I could just get her to press the button, they could find Suyin—no matter what happened to me.
“Try again,” I told her.
The chamber became full of the echoing call and response: crack and scream, snap and cry, crunch and wail. Still, the SOS signal didn’t come on.
“Tommy?” Suyin called. Barely a whisper but her soft voice filled the chamber.
“Ah, yessss!” said the witch. “Wake up, dearie. You’ll pay attention this time. See how it’s done.”
“I’m here!” I cried, wanting it to be comforting but there was too much hurt and fear in my voice.
“Fleeting, fleeting,” said the witch, her breath heavy with the smell of decay. “I have to eat—at least until your wee sister is ready to take on my role.”
With one quick motion she ripped through my bonds. I struggled to get up, but everything was weak and hurt. The witch stepped back, dropping Travel Buddy behind her, its unlit dome another symbol of my failure.
“Muscle and bone and parts unknown, consume, consume, consume. Eyes and ears and all your fears, consume, consume, consume.”
Her shoulders thrust forward violently. The bones popped and cracked and stretched with a wooden groan. Her whole body lurched forward as a thousand needles pierced through the tough skin. She cried and writhed as they grew, hunching over as the needles spread, growing needles of their own. Soon her whole body was covered in a sheen of black and gray feathers.
Once more the witch thrust forward. A sharp beak ripped through the skin of her face, swallowing her wart-covered nose.
What towered before me was a giant owl, larger than any living thing that ever stalked those woods. Its dark, ashen coat shimmered in the firelight. Her eyes were the only things unchanged. Great orbs of unfathomable darkness.
The owl bobbed its head, a twisted enjoyment evident in its face. The fire now roared behind me, consuming the nest.
I’m sorry, Suyin.
Like a tidal wave, the great owl swallowed me whole, all in an instant. I was spun on my head, sloshed about, and dropped into her angry stomach. Acids splashed and singed sensitive prosthetics and microfibers buried beneath the skin. There was a hungry, gurgling sound, and the smell of burning plastic, rubber, and bile filled my nose.
My hands searched the grimy walls but only led back to myself, until finally I sank into the pit of her stomach. I lay there shivering with pain, my fingers twitching against my legs, unconsciously tap-tap-tapping something that shouldn’t be there.
Something unnatural. Synthetic.
One of the hoses had come exposed. Suddenly I remembered the time I scraped my leg on a playground, and instead of blood there was oil, and another boy had licked his scrape, so I licked mine and threw up.
Desperately I pulled on the hose, but it resisted. With both hands and the last of my breath, I tugged, feeling the artificial pieces in my arm stretching, threatening to snap. Just when I felt that my arm was about to dislocate, the hose came free, spurting oil into the witch’s stomach.
Soon the walls were pulsating around me. They tossed me about, splashing my face and chest with acid. First it burned, then there was nothing. And then there was light. A faint orange glow, like a very distant star and I was rocketing towards it.
The owl gagged as I plopped like a fish onto the earth, thrashing about and swallowing air.
She coughed heavily, shaking feathers from her body as she shrank in size. Her bones popped like the fire as they realigned into her haggish form.
On the ground before me was Travel Buddy. I reached out and pressed the SOS button. I’ve done it, I thought. But the light still didn’t come on. I pressed it again and again, but the thing was dead, useless as it ever was. I hate you, Travel Buddy.
“What are you?” said the witch, choking on spittle. I climbed to my feet and limped towards her on my one good leg, still holding the overpriced walking stick.
“Synthetic.” I swung it down on her head with all the strength I could give.
Suyin’s hands and feet were bound with thin, sturdy roots. She was unresponsive, so I picked her up and limped along with a dead leg I could only swing from the hip.
As I carried her from the burrow, I saw dozens of discarded corpses the witch had coughed up during her lifetime. Some of them looked ancient, with cell phones jutting from their hips, glued there by digestive juices. Fresher ones had nanofiber bones and smart-tech veins running up their bodies. I glanced to the burned flesh of my arms, the unnatural parts exposed and singed, and I remembered what the witch said before about not taking something without leaving something behind.
Suyin awoke as we breached the surface. “Who… Who’s there?” she muttered. She’d been starved and her eyes kept in the dark; it would take her longer to adjust.
“It’s me. It’s Tom–y,” I said, but my voice was hoarse and clipped. “You’re –afe now.”
She reached out and touched my face. I felt nothing. Her expression turned sad. She knocked on my cheek. Hard, metallic thumping. “Where’d your face go?”
“She took i–.”
“Where’d your eyes go?”
“She t–k those too.” Through the camera installed in my right eye socket, I scarcely recognized the confusion and sleepy disappointment drawn across her face. “She took ev-rythin- I was born with.”
Suyin knocked on my chest—a soft, wet thud. It made me cough. “Not everything,” she said, squeezing me tight.