The Hag in the Woods

Everyone has that one local rumor that scares all the kids and inspires the bravest ones to show their mettle by investigating the stories and proving them false. Ours is the tale of Old Vanna.

 

Years ago, an old woman lived in a hut in the forest, far enough from town that the general bustle of daily life gave way to the sounds of birds singing and water trickling along its path, and that the smell of hay and burning fireplaces was replaced by the thick scent of damp moss. Vanna was a medicine woman back in the old days, and whenever there was an illness, a pregnancy, or a death, she was the one everyone went to for aid. Travelers used the road close to her hut to enter the village, so she would often come to their aid if their journey took a turn for the worse. Eventually, as is the case with all of us, Old Vanna died in her sleep and was discovered by her nephew’s wife. The town mourned, and then life continued; it wasn’t until our town matured into the age of electricity and modern medicine that she returned.

 

Sometimes at night, campers in the woods would hear the faint, rasping cackle–almost like a cough–that Vanna used to have. Others noticed the pungent odor of cooked fungi mixed with other earthy things wafting through the trees. On one particularly clear evening, a young couple had ventured so deep into the forest that they had stumbled upon the dilapidated remains of an old stone hut. Various types of mushrooms, herbs, and other useful plants still grew around the hovel, although most of it had been overtaken by ivy and thick moss. A lantern still burned inside.

 

The tale of Old Vanna was our most popular legend; everyone knew at least some version of the story of the old herbalist, and this couple, being no exception (and a little on the daring side) agreed to spend the night inside the remains of the cottage despite the ghost stories floating around. They doused the lantern, writing it off as “some other camper’s attempt at spending the night” and vowing that they would be the ones to make it until morning. There were only two rooms in Vanna’s house–a main room with a large fireplace, which was meant for cooking, dining, and receiving guests; and a smaller side room where her meager bed still stood, rotted and withered with age.

 

As they poked through the decaying remnants of Vanna’s life, they found many of her items surprisingly intact–an old iron cooking pot resting on a spit (with some dried and pithy substance inside), empty vials, dried herbs hanging above the fireplace, bits of tattered cloth, and several mortars and pestles strewn about. The man discovered that the fire poker had been removed from its place with the other tools on the hearth and resided in a hole in the bedroom floor that was left behind as the wood rotted away. Curious, they looked a little more closely at the state of the home. On the floor in the main room, nearly etched away by time and the elements, was a circle inscribed with strange symbols. A few bits of teeth and bone lay strewn in the center. Still, they shrugged it off as just the usual wear and tear caused by the cottage’s exposure to the weather and resident fauna, and they settled down into bed.

 

Late into the night, when the forest turned pitch black and even the nocturnal creatures had grown silent, the woman awakened to something poking her in the shoulder. At first she simply brushed it off, muttering sleepily to her companion to “knock it off”; the fourth time, however, she jolted upright intent on confronting him. Instead, she was greeted by the leathery and shaking form of an old woman, the toenails and fingernails sharp like claws. The head was twisted completely backwards, the jaw dangling almost by a thread, and the eyes dark pits partially obscured by mangy gray hair.

 

The woman screamed, the man awakened to the sight and started stabbing wildly with the hunting knife he kept close. In a puff of black smoke, the creature vanished; in another, she reappeared behind the man and struck him across the face with the fire poker. The woman fled as quickly as she could, miraculously returning to town with only a few cuts and bruises from stumbling her way through the dark forest. Most male officers sent to investigate found they could not will themselves to tread more than a few feet beyond the treeline, and the K-9 units halted even before that point. When the female officers (and the few males who encountered none of the feelings of “something isn’t right” that their fellows had) reached the house, they discovered the campsite left just as the woman had described. Her lover’s body was also there–the head spun around 180 degrees and black sockets where the eyes once were. Those officers report hearing strange cough-like cackling and smelling the scent of decaying flesh while they installed police tape around the area. None of those assigned to process and clean the crime scene stayed in the forest past dusk.

 

Years later, when the chaos had subsided and the tale became little more than a faint memory to the townsfolk, the rumors began again tenfold. Some males found it difficult, or even impossible, to enter the forest, and anyone who did make their way into the woods at night could swear they heard a cough-like laugh and insisted that the smell of cooking fungi or rotting flesh hung heavy in the air. Even the reckless teenagers have stayed closer to town and haven’t worked up the desire to find the ruins for themselves. But, as these legends often do…

 

…I’m sure someone will be lured to that cursed hut sometime soon.

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