There was an old woman who lived just outside the village, as close as her neighbors would allow her. Her long gray hair dragged on the ground as she walked, collecting leaves and twigs. Her nose was long and hooked like the beak of a bird and covered with warts and blackheads. Her back was crowned by a large hump, and her fingers were long and knotted with longer, even more knotted yellow fingernails. She wrapped her feet with rags and covered her hideous form with amorphous coverings that were pieced together from clothing the other villagers had cast aside. 

As a girl she had been raised by her grandmother, who had been the village midwife and herbalist. A valued and respected member of the community. Her parents died when she was a child, but no one, not even her grandmother, would tell her the details of their deaths, or even their names.

She had been a singularly ugly girl, and few of the attributes that marked her as a hideous old crone had not been present when she was a young woman. The young men in the village weren't remotely interested in her, not even when drunk, not even when she offered herself to them in several embarrassing episodes. None of the old men would have her either, and it was soon clear to her that she would never be loved by man, so she turned her attention to the only things that didn't insult her when she offered them love: the ghosts, the herbs, the hexes.

Her grandmother taught her the lore that had been passed down to her by a thousand years of mothers and daughters. She learned which plants were good for medicine, and which were good for poison. She learned simple hexes to make a woman's daily life easy—strange words to light a fire, boil water, tiny winds to sweep a floor. She learned how to deliver a baby, and how to use a razor and leeches to drain ill humors and how to lance boils. She lived with her grandmother, assisting her in her profession, until the old woman died peacefully during the night after the harvest festival (some said the old woman had died years before her body showed signed of obvious decay, and her soul was so strong and filled with magic that it still animated her mummified body),

She was lonely, torturously so. Her only friends were the crows that ate the corn in her garden, and the ghosts that haunted her humble little shack. When she was a girl she had only one friend, a little traveler girl who had run away from her family. She showed up barefoot and tangle-haired at her grandmother's hut, begging for money and food. Her lip was split, and the emaciated girl was covered in bruises and welts. The grandmother took her in, treated her wounds with poultices of herbs, fed her and then asked her to stay until she was in better condition to travel. The girl stayed for a couple of years, until the ghosts started to gather, and then moved on.

The villagers tolerated the old woman because she was skilled in necessary practices that none of them dared learn out of fear of damnation. But she was not welcomed. The villagers were afraid of her, so her visits to the village were infrequent, and requests for her help were a last resort. 

To keep her away from the village, the villagers kept her supplied with the necessities of life such as food and clothing, and they filled her strange requests for the items which allowed her to practice her trade: baby teeth, toad bones, rare herbs. They left them in a certain spot on a flat rock near the rubbish pile, and she would walk there twice a week to collect her supplies and leave for the villagers a piece of parchment with crude drawings of what she required of them. 

The old woman made it her habit to dig through the rubbish pile and salvage what the villagers had thrown away but could be made good again through a minimum of effort. She found clothing that needed nothing more than patches, socks that needed to be darned, pots that needed scrubbing, and she hauled them back to her little house on the edge of the village and with a mixture of hard work and her country hexes, made them as useful again. On lucky days, she'd find refuse from the noble family itself, such as broken dolls and slightly worn gowns. Sometimes she would sell these repaired items back to the villagers, or to peddlers on the way to the Keep.

One morning when she was searching through the garbage, she found a leather bag closed with a drawstring. Opening it, she discovered something that she'd never seen before: the corpse of infant twin boys, joined at the chest and sharing one still heart. She looked around to see if anyone was watching her, and knowing that she had no witnesses, she slung the bag over her hunched shoulder, collected her basket from the flat rock, and scurried home as the shadow of the middle spire from the Keep eclipsed the sun.

Returning home, she set a large glass jar on her kitchen table and filled it with vinegar. She took the tiny body from the leather bag and immersed it in the jar, sealing the lid with wax. She sat for hours looking at the strange little dead thing with its two heads and four arms and four legs, and then she placed it on a shelf in her cupboard where it stayed until her loneliness became unbearable again.

The old lady would set the jar on her kitchen table whenever she did her housekeeping, and she sang to it, and told it stories from her childhood. Her singing scared away the crows, and she had a great crop of corn that year as a result. Her stories made the ghosts jealous, since she had never told them any stories at all.

Two of the ghosts were particularly mischievious, and as a result they could do things the other ghosts could not, such as knock over glasses and blow out candle flames. In life, these ghosts had been powerful magicians, but those lives were long forgotten and the disembodied souls of these somber, serious, and perhaps evil magicians were now as silly as kittens and couldn't remember from one day to the next.

The two ghosts decided to fool the old woman into telling them stories instead of the dead child, and so they decided to take up residence in the child's body. When the old lady began her chores, she set the jar on the table and started to tell a funny story concerning a cow. The ghosts found the story so humorous that they smiled using the childrens' lips, and would've laughed had the childs' lungs not been filled with vinegar.

The ghosts were startled that they could move again, and began experimenting with the little body. They moved the arms and then the legs, they listened with the ears and watched with the eyes. They attempted to swim around in the vinegar, but the jar was too small. Instead, they caused the jar to fall off the edge of the table and crash onto the floor. The sound of breaking glass startled the old woman, and she stopped her sweeping in mid sweep and turned to the broken jar on the floor with eyes filled with terror.

The ghosts tried to leave the body to escape the wrath of the old woman, but they had stayed inside too long. As they struggled they caused the babies' four little legs to kick and their four little arms to move. When they realized what they had done, how they had imprisoned themselves in the dead childrens' tiny body, the little lungs took in air and the mouths began to cry.

The old woman was overjoyed that her little child had magically come to life and she scooped the strange little thing up in her feeble arms and held it close to her as tears of joy ran down her lined cheeks. The ghosts hadn't felt such love in many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and they soon forgot they were ghosts at all, since ghosts have such short memories. The little dead eyes looked up at the old woman and lit up again with a strange new life. The babies smiled.

The old lady loved the children as if she had birthed them from her own old hips. And through experimentation, she found foods to nourish them, foods that no normal baby would eat. She nursed the babies with cows' blood, and occasionally would cut her own finger and put it  in the babies' little gray lips. When the babies grew larger, she fed them locks of hair, and pages from discarded books. Soon they were boys, and when they had learned to talk and listen, she taught them the little hexes she'd learned as a girl from her own grandmother.

The brothers remembered their previous lives in dreams, and the nightmares kept them awake and afraid. The old lady listened to their dreams and told them at first that they were only dreams and weren't real. Eventually though, the dreams paralleled tales and legends she had learned as a child regarding the two evil magicians, lovers, who had been executed nearby over a thousand years ago.

As the children grew, their behavior started to alarm the old woman. They showed signs of cruelty, killing mice for pleasure and reanimating their corpses and commanding the murine zombies to torture and eventually kill the old woman's aged cat. The villagers would from time to time collect in crowds outside the old woman's house and demand reparations for mutilated livestock or withered crops that they believed were caused by the pallid-skinned conjoined twins she was raising.

The old woman knew that her beloved sons would grow into horrible, evil men, capable of destruction beyond her imagination. She knew that the only right thing to do would be to kill them, if it were even possible to kill a being that had already died numerous times. She imagined terrible fates for the villagers if she died and could no longer dissuade her sons from their foul acts. Then, she thought of her life of sorrow and loneliness. She thought of the way children had been taught to keep their distance from her, how she had been kept at arms length from the village except when it was convenient. When she thought of the horrible strife her sons might cause the village who had treated her so coarsely, she smiled.

AuthorBrennen Reece