Deep in the woods, past the crater and the old oak tree, the witch’s cottage sat in a clearing surrounded by rosemary, lavender, and raspberry bushes. If one knew which direction to approach from, they would find the thorns part on either side to reveal a gentle cobbled path, leading right from the village all the way until the witch’s door. Today, walking down the path and swinging her bag in the breeze, the grocer’s daughter breathed in deep of the herbs, came to the door, and knocked gently three times.
From within she heard movement, a chair pushed back and footsteps approaching. She braced herself to see the witch for the first time, but as the door opened it revealed a young boy instead. He was dressed in loose green trousers and a cream shirt, stained with brown and red specks across the front; from his ears dangled twisted silver earrings in the shape of birds; and caught in his blonde hair were feathers, tickling his ears and neck where they sat amongst locks.
“Can I help you?” he said, gazing down at the girl. She drew her eyes away from him to her bag, and cleared her throat.
“Yes, I hope so,” she said. “I’m here to see the witch.”
“You’re out of luck,” the boy replied. “She’s out on an errand. She’ll be an hour at the least.”
The girl shrugged and looked at the sky. The sun had barely reached its midday height; there were still many hours left in the day. “I don’t mind waiting,” she replied. “As long as I won’t intrude.”
The boy glanced inside at something unknown, before shrugging and opening the door wider. The grocer’s daughter stepped into the cottage and felt the air change instantly; whilst the sun outside was hot and tickling the tips of her ears, inside it was cool and still, the windows shaded by plants and curtains. She looked around, curious, as the boy closed the door and made his way past her to the kitchen. She followed silently.
“Would you like a drink?” he said, cautiously lifting the lid on a kettle as it steamed on the hob. “I was making tea.”
“Yes, thank you,” the girl replied, and sat down at the table where she could find space. Scattered across its surface were all manner of trinkets; she spotted small gems, twisted pieces of tree bark, and bones -- fresh white ones and yellowing old ones, all meticulously cleaned and prepared. She drew her eyes away from them as the boy placed a mug beside her, taking the seat opposite. Without speaking he picked up two of the bones, and began to carefully tie them with small pieces of twine. The girl found his fingers mesmerising to watch as they made small knots and loops.
“What are you making?” she asked, and he looked up with a strange expression. He gestured to the bones in between them and smiled.
“I’m making charms,” he said. “Charms for good luck, or for good weather; to encourage money or children.”
“And do they work?”
He hesitated for a second, a knot half-formed in his hands. He seemed to bite back some words before answering, “Would you be here if you thought they did not?”
The girl pouted and looked away at the window, where an orchid leant into the breeze and swayed. “I’m just here because of my Father,” she replied. “He seems to think they work.”
“And what is your Father after?”
She hesitated for a moment, before turning to look back at him with a pained expression. “He wants a charm to help seized joints, hands that don’t work like they should.”
The boy looked at her curiously, and down at the collection of gems before him. “You won’t need to wait for the witch to be back,” he said. “I can make a charm like that.”
“And who are you to do so?”
He replied with a smile. “I am the witch’s son. And who are you to ask?”
She met his gaze, challenging her even as lines of good humour appeared around his eyes. She hesitated for a moment before replying, “I am the grocer’s daughter.”
The grocer’s daughter sat in the cottage and waited, drinking her tea as the witch’s son worked. He had stood to gather materials from the shelves all around them, humming to himself as he picked specific twigs, specific gems, specific bones. The importance of each one was lost to her, but their particular arrangement seemed to hold some meaning; as the charm came together, she saw a pattern arising, the web of twine and tidbits asymmetric but with a sense of balance still. After half an hour and all the tea gone, the witch’s son made the final knot and held the charm aloft.
“Here is the charm for your Father,” he said with glee. “It will guard against joints that have locked due to strain; it will help the bones loosen and move in pattern with each other; and it will stop the ache where the muscles of his hand all fight each other to act.”
He thrust it out for the grocer’s daughter to take. “Bring it back with you, and see how it works; then you can come back and discuss payment, or modify it if you need.”
She watched his proud expression as he presented the charm; and she watched the expression falter as she lifted her hand to take it. The sleeve tugged back on her arm, the light from the window reflecting on the dark metal of her palm. She reached out and closed her fingers around the charm, each one creaking and whirring as they struggled to move as they should.
The grocer’s daughter returned after a week. She took the path through the woods, the branches catching at her dress and snagging her hair as she tried to push them out the way. After time she reached the circle of herbs surrounding the cottage, and breathed a sigh as she stepped up to the door. As she raised her hand to knock, she heard a voice away to the side.
“Welcome back,” the witch’s son called. She followed the voice around the cottage to find him crouched by a window, secateurs in hand and the remains of twisting green vines cut away to make light.
“I’ve come with the charm you made,” the girl said.
He raised his eyebrows and stood up, brushing leaves off his knees. His face looked nervous as he asked her, “Did it work? Did it help your, ah...”
He gestured to her arm as it hung by her side. She said nothing as she raised it to gesture towards him, the fingers locked in a loose, curled fist as they tried to straighten out. The two remained silent for a moment, until she let her arm drop back to her side.
“The charm did not help,” she said, “And I’ve come to return it.”
The witch’s son poured tea as the grocer’s daughter sat at the table, her hands resting in front of her. As he set the mug down she reached out her real one to curl around the handle, and moved it a little closer to her.
“I lost it when I was young,” she said. “We were in the woods south of here when we startled a wolf and her cubs by accident. My father escaped intact, and I... mostly escaped.”
The boy nodded solemnly. “And where did you get the hand?”
“The machinist who visits sometimes made it three winters ago,” she replied. “My father traded four crates of cider -- most of that year’s stock -- and I could use it again for a while.”
She glanced down at the hand as it rested on the table, the fingers curled in on themselves. “This winter, it started to seize. He tried all the craftsmen in town -- the blacksmith, the clockmaker, the librarian -- and now we even tried the witch.”
She sipped her tea as the witch’s son looked down at the table in silence. After a moment she felt a rush of guilt inside.
“I didn’t mean any insult,” she said. “You’re not the only one who’s...”
She trailed off as he looked up and smiled kindly. “It’s ok,” he said. “It must be frustrating. Will you try and see the machinist again?”
She sighed. “We don’t know when he’s next to return. Sometimes it’s years between visits. And with each week my hand gets more useless.”
Suddenly the girl smacked the table, the tea jumping out the mugs as she wailed. “It’s not fair! He thought if the learned folk couldn’t figure it out, at least a magic user could. But your charm didn’t work either!”
The witch’s son looked uncomfortable as he stood to fetch a cloth. He mopped up the tea as she rested her head on the table and simmered. “Sorry,” she said after a moment. “I didn’t mean to spill your tea.”
“It’s ok,” he replied. “I’m sorry the charm didn’t work. You don’t have to worry about any payment for it.”
“Are you sure?”
He nodded and wrung the cloth out in the sink as she sighed and sat back up in her chair. “Truth was, if you asked for it we would have still paid. The charm you made was pretty, at the least.”
She smiled at him as he blushed, and he bowed to her to cover up the embarrassment. After a moment he sat back down and stared at her thoughtfully.
“May I look at your hand?”
“Why? You think you can do better?”
She stared back at him for a moment before snorting. “You might as well have the damn thing.”
With her other hand she reached up and grasped her upper arm. She gave it a twist and winced, and it came away just above the elbow, hand and forearm attached. She threw it down on the table between them.
“See what good you can get from it.”
The witch’s son reached out and carefully picked it up. Cradling it with both of his hands, he turned it over and looked at the fingers, at the wrist, at the joint where it met the rest of her body.
“Give me a week,” he said, “And I will give you your arm back.”
The grocer’s daughter made her way through the woods once more. The trees seemed to part for her as she walked, or else she knew the path now where once it had been hidden. She fended the branches off with one arm and stepped into the circle of brambles.
This time, emerging from the cottage was a new figure. She stepped cautiously towards them, and froze as they turned to reveal the face of an aged and kind woman. The grocer’s daughter stood nervously as the witch raised a hand in greeting; when she raised her own the witch’s eyes widened and she smiled.
“Well, good afternoon,” the witch said. “You must be the one who’s occupied my son for the whole week.”
“Quite, child. I think he’s expecting you.”
The witch beckoned for her to approach, and stepped aside when she reached the door. When she hesitated to knock, the witch laughed and opened it for her.
“I shan’t come in; I have matters to deal with in the forest. And I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
With that the witch turned and strode away, with not a look behind at the cottage. The grocer’s daughter glanced backwards before taking a long breath, and stepping in to the cottage once more.
She called out a greeting, and heard the witch’s son reply from the kitchen. She shut the door behind her and walked through; the boy had clearly been working at the table, but now stood to greet her.
“Hello,” he said, “I’m glad you’ve come back. Would you like a drink?”
“I would like my hand,” she replied. He hesitated for a second before nodding, and gesturing for her to sit. She did so, smoothing down her dress and taking a breath to prepare. The witch’s son took a few steps to the shelves by the wall, and reached up to retrieve her arm.
“I’m afraid I wasn’t able to make it work,” he said. “The way the machinists work with metal and wire... it’s beyond any of my skills.”
He set the arm down on the table, and straightened up again with a regretful look. “I’m sorry if you wanted it to work again.”
The grocer’s daughter held steady for a moment as she gazed at her arm, the metal cold and dark, the fingers curled in on themselves as it sat motionless before her.
“I thought this might happen,” she replied. “I was wrong to expect anything else.”
She went to stand, and the boy rushed over to her side. “Please, wait!” he said, and tried to put a hand on her shoulder. She batted it away and he took a step back in shock, clutching his arm where she struck it.
“Why should I wait?” she snarled. “There’s nothing else you can do for me.”
“Please, just... sit a moment. I have something else to show you.”
She stood glaring at him for a minute before sighing. “Make it quick,” she replied, “I’m not in the mood to look at pretty trinkets.”
The witch’s son rushed over to the shelving again, and reached for a bundle of cloth. He picked it up gently and brought it over to the table, setting the bundle down between them.
“I hope you don’t think it overstepping,” he said, “But when looking at your arm, I... had some ideas. I said I can’t work with metal or wire, but there are still materials I can use.”
He took the edge of the cloth and unwrapped it carefully. The girl leant forward to see another charm -- no, that was wrong. Formed out of wood and bone, and twine and gems, sat on the cloth with fingers outspread was a second arm. Around the bones wrapped what looked like vines, the leaves spread out like skin across the mesh of twine, leading down to the wrist and to the hand, where each knuckle was marked with a glittering stone, and each nail picked out with a curved fragment of abalone shell.
“It looks beautiful,” she said, and reached out to trace a line up to the elbow. As she did so, one of the fingers twitched, and she pulled back her hand in shock.
“It moved!” she said, and the witch’s son grinned back at her.
“It’s designed to move. It will -- I hope -- move just like your other one, as long as you let it see enough sunlight each day.”
“So it’s not just a decoration?”
He shook his head and took a quick breath. “Do you want to try it on?”
The witch’s son helped her fit the new limb, securing the end with a strap around her upper arm. He took a step back and watched her nervously.
“Try to move it.”
The grocer’s daughter lifted her old arm, then tried to lift her new one. The wood and twine moved as they should, the new bone as good as the old, and the leaves rippled as they repositioned themselves. On her knuckles, the gems flashed as she rolled her fingers, bending them and opening them, flexing each in turn. As the witch’s son smiled, his face lit up in a triumphant expression, the grocer’s daughter reached out and took his hand between her own two hands, one made of flesh and one made of magic.