TO ESCAPE THE WITCH'S HOUSE

Layla Al-Bedawi

 Art by AJ Gabriel

Art by AJ Gabriel

1. Make a list of places that keep you safe.

Behind the loose panel in the back of the canning closet. Steal a wooden spoon and crack open a dirty, dust-covered jar. Eat sticky old strawberries and imagine their flavor fresh from the field, their firm, plump textures. As you dream of feeling your own body grow and ripen under sunlight, put strawberries inside yourself until your skin is the color of bruised summer fruits and your organs have turned to syrup.

At the bottom of the squirrel nest in the bowing eaves, above the eye-shaped attic window. Wear the woolen coat and press your knees tight into your chest, forcing your body small, so the mother squirrel might feed you nuts and caterpillars, while your rodent siblings squeeze their little bodies against your warmth and softness.

Hidden behind the bars of your own ribcage. Breaking a door into the bones will hurt like nothing before, but once inside, the hollow shell of your body will fool anyone, so long as you blow a steady rhythm into the billowing balloons of your lungs. Beat on your heart like a drum.

2. Make a list of things to break.

The hairbrush she uses on you every night, teasing the gold from your scalp. You've cut your hair jagged and wild and will have no use for it now. If you break it just right, the handle's new razor edge will be an ally against wolves and other, more monstrous foes.

The door knob to the rotting house once you're outside, to outwit any second thoughts. You can't let yourself be tempted to return for the things you will forget: your shoes, your words, your eyes. Navigate the landscape by the capillary maps on the soles of your feet, and run towards where the air smells colder and more green, less like the sweet, warm rot of her breath.

Your promise to protect the small ones. Carve the list of safe places into their hearts, so they may not forget about strawberries and squirrels. They will wail and cling to you, their jagged fingernails like burrs in your coat. Leave them. Without eyes, it will be easy not to look back.

3. Make a list of what to take with you.

The attic cat. Neither of you will be trapped again among damp earthen walls blooming with poisonous patterns of mold, windows that are forever closed like jaws wired shut. As you travel, he will bring you songbirds and small rabbits. Together, you will gnaw the little carcasses down to their bones, then hide them in tree hollows and under wet piles of leaves. You will know better than to leave a trail. Keep one of the birds' voices for yourself.

The kitchen scissors. You will want to cut through your hair, your clothes, your skin often, changing shapes and shedding unnecessary bits of you as you grow new, more useful ones. Bring a needle and thread, too, for small adjustments and fixes, and in case you want to trade parts with the cat. He won't mind. He will gladly gift you one of his eyes so you can watch him revel in his new, two-legged existence.

A jar of dead dirt collected from the cellar floor, where the small ones sleep. Watch it closely, day after day, year after year. If ever so much as a weed should sprout from it, you will know that you may return to your cursed old home to find her perished. Do not let hope take residence in your soul. Carry the dirt as a talisman, a reminder that you came from a bad, barren place.

4. Make a final list of things you hope to find.

Bales of straw that prick your naked skin as you sleep atop them. When you lift your body in the morning, a thick, yellow carpet of straw will have grown into your dermis and covered you in a ragged, spiky fur that imbues you with a sweet, musty autumn smell, masking your scent.

A note from those you left behind, scratched in blood or strawberry juice onto cracked pieces of willow bark, delivered by a raven well-disposed towards runaways and runts, bringing news of their escape. Drag your finger over their dried fears, their hopes, their undeserved love for you. In the night, you will feel the spirit of your guilt leave your body. You know it will return soon, but it will be less fierce, more scar than wound.

A tree that bears the fruit of keys. Pluck one and wear it around your neck on a strand of your golden hair. Let it sit between your breasts and watch its slow change every day, rounding out its ornate bow, lengthening the stem, growing crooked teeth, ripening. One day you will wake to find it fits the old hole between your ribs, allowing your small true self to emerge finally from the prison beside your bruised strawberry heart.


LAYLA AL-BEDAWI is a fiction writer, poet, translator, and bookbinder (among other things). English is her third language, but she's been dreaming in it for years. Her work is published or forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Bayou Magazine, and elsewhere. Originally from Germany, she currently lives in Houston, TX . Find her on Twitter under @frauleinlayla or at laylaalbedawi.com.