A Fairy Tale
The village of Widow’s Peak was founded when the man crested a hill, saw the Great Expanse roll out before him, and said, “That’s far enough.”
His journey ended at midday. Widow napped through the heat of the day, and at night the work began. He cut a few lengths of rope, bent a few young saplings into a pleasing shape, and dug a well. He slept beneath the nodded sapling crowns and dipped up water as sweet and cloudy as the night sky. The next day he befriended a wolf pup who brought him rabbits in exchange for lessons in the various herbs that can be chewed and spat upon wounds to cleanse or numb them. The pack soon came to trust Widow as well, and he soon became weary of rabbit stew.
Widow’s stewpot was a marvel. He’d brought it with him, traveling under it like a turtle under its shell, and it was much scored and dented by falling rocks from his passage through the Vicious Mountains, but it still held true. He used it for everything: cooking, washing, soap-making, tanning, trapping, potion-mixing, shelter from particularly wild storms. He didn’t know where it had come from — it had been in his family always, and when he struck out on his journey, he knew he’d never get far without it. It’s said he even floated some ways down the Cat’s Glass river in its belly.
It had seen so much of human life and use that the sprites in the wood near Widow’s Peak told him that it could be witched to provide him with a family. Widow declined. He desired only solitude, and sent the sprites away.
Soon enough, though, a woman appeared in the woods, and the sprites brought her to Widow. He fed and clothed her, and shared with her the dream that had led him to this place. He had set out for a great journey and greater quest, but it had demanded so many years of wandering that at last he settled in this place and called it done. The woman said she’d also been led here by a dream, though she didn’t recall the journey or what came before. He offered her a place beneath the trees, she planted a garden, and they later married and had a son.
One son does not a village make, but from time to time the sprites brought other humans to them: travelers who had lost their way in the woods, they said. Each time, Widow fed them and shared his tale with them, and they asked to stay. He turned none away; not a one of them could remember where they’d come from. They bent the trees like he had done, and grew their own houses and gardens and married each other and had children of their own.
One night, Widow’s son, Ash —
It is worth mentioning that Widow’s family was not known for their imaginations. Widow was named for his mother, who had not even been given a name until her husband died. Widow’s wife, Peril, was named for what she’d left behind as well as the danger she brought with her to Widow, who until he met her had been quite happy to be alone. They named their son “Ash” for the forest of ash trees the village bordered.
At any rate, Ash grew suspicious.
The sprites had recently led a young woman, one about his own age, and very pretty, out of the woods. This had happened directly after Peril sighed that there was no one for her son to marry: Ash was nearing his thirtieth year, and the other villagers were all much older or much younger than he was. The sprites coyly suggested that he and this young lady wed, and she seemed amenable, until Ash took her hands and told her in confidence that he preferred young men, and could not give his heart to any maid in earnest. She was distraught until Ash explained that she could still live in the village even without marrying him. She clasped his hands back, smiling, and the two became friends. She soon went instead to apprentice as a huntress to the wolves, who call her something that means Thorn.
Not a week later, a young man was led into the village, handsome and gentle. He smiled warmly at Ash, and Ash felt both fondness and suspicion take root in his heart. He spent time with the young man, who called himself Rose, and the two did fall in love, but try as he might to lay it to rest, the unease never left Ash’s mind. One day Rose mused he would have liked to have a child, and only when he pressed did Ash warily agree. Not because he didn’t want a child, but because he had a feeling that saying he did would conjure one to them whether it was right or not.
That night, Ash couldn’t sleep. He kept thinking of the sprites in the wood, and the stories his father had told about the stewpot. He got up and walked to the clearing where the stewpot rested — it had not been used much for cooking since the village had grown — and sat down behind a bush to wait.
Sure enough, the sprites appeared. Ash watched as they led one of their number — small and weak — to the stewpot and put her inside, and before Ash could stop them, a human baby came tumbling out. He confronted them, snatching up the baby from the ground and wrapping it in his cloak. The sprites — clever pixies — hung their heads and confessed that they’d been transforming their kin into humans by means of the well-seasoned stewpot for many years now, remaking themselves and joining the village at opportune moments. When he asked them why, they said:
“We prefer to live among you, but your father prefers wolves to humans, and humans to pixies.”
Ash was disconcerted, but he took the baby back with him to the village and said he’d found her in the woods, exposed to the elements, and that she would need looking after. There was never any question of who would raise her. Ash and Rose named her Doe, and they were happy for many years.
But Doe had inherited her grandfather’s wandering spirit, and became the first of the villagers to leave Widow’s Peak.
When it became apparent that they could not dissuade her, her fathers told Doe to take the stewpot with her. It would keep her safe and fed, and the village now had other sensible pots for cooking and soap-making, which, given enough time, would absorb all the care and skill and magic that was being stirred into them.
Doe slung the stewpot across her back and gathered her pack beneath it, then collected a map, a cloak, and a smokepipe from her grandfather, and took up Widow’s abandoned quest, as he’d always known someone would.