The Child-Feast of Harridan Sack
By Kaitlyn Zivanovich
I plant a whisper in my daughter’s hair when her shoulders shake and hunch up to her ears. It’s only a story, I say. I turn the page; I’ve resolved her fears. It’s only a story. That is what mothers say to their daughters.
What kind of comfort is that?
It’s not a reassurance, or a consolation.
It’s a warning.
It’s a story, child. Pay attention, it is a story.
In the storybook I would read to my Mila at night, a raven watches the cottage with a glassy eye. The raven spies the witchy crone hobbling up the forest path. The raven hears her cajole the half-dozen children into breaking their mother’s rules and opening the door.
“Why doesn’t the raven stop her?” My budding activist is incensed. In a few years she wonders, “Why did the mother leave them alone?”
The mother returns from market and calls for her children. In her basket is everything the children have ever wanted, but they are not home to receive it. They are gone.
The raven appears and speaks in rhyme.
“I saw Harridan Sack, with the crooked back.
“They let her in.”
In my story, the role of the raven is played by the busybody neighbor across the hall. Her door opens as soon as I knock, as if she’d been snooping through the walls.
“She went with the man,” she caws from behind the chain lock of her door. “Your new boyfriend?”
I juggle my grocery bags to flash my wedding band. “I’m married. My husband is deployed.”
“Army wives,” she mutters. “When the cat’s away, I guess. I just mind my own business, let you live your life.”
“What man?” I can defend my marital fidelity later. My twelve-year-old daughter should’ve been home from school by now. Mila should be eating a bowl of Chex in her room and refusing to clean up her dishes. She should be rolling her eyes when I call her name. She should be in the house. She should’ve locked the door.
“I heard her come in from the street, stomping like an elephant.” My raven-neighbor glares. “The man came knocking maybe an hour ago.”
A man? My daughter was home and now is not, and there was a man?
The groceries slip to the floor. The hallway dilates and constricts. My heart falls out of my chest, it punctures the floor with a dead thud.
She’s made a mistake. That happens in stories, it happens to other mothers. Not to me. She’s wrong.
“You’re supposed to teach her, mom.” She tsks and lectures while I fail to breathe or blink. “She shouldn’t open doors when you’re not home. And maybe you shouldn’t be gone so much. You’re off, chasing that almighty career, trying to do it all. Who’s paying for it, you know?”
I can’t drink enough breath. “Someone took my daughter?”
“Took?” The raven cocks her head. “No, honey. She went with him.”
In the storybook my daughter and I read together, cuddled in her Dora the Explorer blanket in her room with her finger paintings taped on every wall…wait. Jesus. I’m sorry, it’s just I can’t remember the last time she painted. Before we moved? Before dad deployed?
In the storybook, the mother gives her six children a pair of rules before she leaves for the market. Don’t open the door. Don’t play with fire. Follow the rules, and everything will be fine. But along comes the witch and all she asks is that they break those two specific rules. Let me inside to rest. Give me a light for my candle. The children always say no, once or twice
She tempts them with a reward: a bag of dulces. Just open the door, and light my candle. The children confer. She’s harmless, and old! Lighting a candle isn’t playing with fire, and mom meant they’re not to open the door to bad guys. It will be fine.
They open the door. They play with fire.
Foot barely across the threshold, Harridan Sack’s candle explodes like dark magic dynamite. The sparks singe the children and transform them into the makings of a mighty feast. Where barefoot grade-schoolers stood, now there are only breads, poached fish, jellied hams and eggs over easy. Harridan tosses her child-feast into her sack and leaves the cottage door swinging on its hinges.
The witch is a man in my story. Old crones don’t eat children in this day and age. Children are devoured in other ways. Worse ways.
The detective details some of these ways, and pushes hot coffee into my hands. He’s justifying why they haven’t issued an AMBER alert. Not enough information about the alleged abductor. She may just be at a friend’s house. It’s not the fact that her last name is Hernandez, and her eyes are brown instead of blue.
I don’t like the word ‘alleged’.
The storybook mother goes on a quest to find Harridan Sack’s hut. She crosses rivers and braves dark forests to rescue her children, but I am trembling in a police station while the detective nicely encourages me to admit maybe I murdered my preteen. Life is tough when a spouse is deployed. And I’m new to the area aren’t I? The neighbor said she heard yelling sometimes. Did my daughter and I fight a lot?
What is a lot? Hard to fight when she refuses to talk to me, and locks her bedroom door. Yes, there is more yelling and slamming of doors than there are whispered stories cuddled under a blanket. Aren’t all children difficult at this age?
When did I stop reading to my daughter?
The mother finds the witch’s hut and knocks on the door. Storybook mothers abide by the sanctity of the threshold. Harridan Sack will not let her in! She could be hiding a weapon! So the mother empties her pockets. Her shoes and socks are muddy and wet, Harridan protests! The mother kicks off her shoes and strips her socks.
Finally, the witch says she will not let the mother in because she is too tall: she will not fit! The mother brandishes a saw and declares that she will cut off her legs!
It’s only a story, I would whisper at this part. Don’t worry: the mother doesn’t saw off her legs. This mother is clever. She tricks the witch and walks on her knees, legs hidden beneath her dress.
I always felt that part was out of place; macabre for a kid’s story. I don’t feel that way now. Now I understand. I will cut off my feet, my tongue, my hands and lips. I will do anything to get inside the witch’s hut.
Mila won’t answer my texts, but she’s reading them. Or someone is. The two check-marks on my What’s App messages turn green. Her phone is still on. The detective encourages me to keep trying while they scrub her laptop and social media.
I love you, I say. I haven’t said that in months. I haven’t said much more than ‘do your homework, clean your room, don’t roll your eyes at me’. She knows I love her. Wasn’t this supposed to be a phase?
Please write back, I need to know you’re alive. Come home, please, please. Tell me where you are. I love you, sweetie, where are you?
I try text, What’s App, email, Insta, Facebook, anything that will make her phone vibrate. She reads the messages and says nothing. I’ve emptied my pockets. I’ve taken off my shoes. I’ve taken off my socks.
My husband is on a patrol, or a mission, or somewhere he can’t take a phone. We’ve sent a Red Cross Message, and his command is tracking him down, but they can’t interrupt tactical operations. A Staff Sergeant’s wife is supposed to be able to handle her shit. Be the hero on the homefront so he can focus on the mission.
I have his passwords.
SSgtHernandez 9:04pm: hey punkin you ok? Mom is freaking out
The detective nods, and I hit send from my husband’s Skype account. The storybook mother had to deceive the witch in order to get into her hut. Skype dings immediately.
armybrat4evr12 9:04pm: daddy!!!!!!!!!1!
It feels like sawing off my legs.
armybrat4evr12 9:05pm: am fine tell mom to chill. where are you?? are you home??
He can never tell us where he is.
SSgtHernandez 9:05pm: Opsec, sweetie. Loose lips…
armybrat4evr12 9:05pm: sink ships!!!! LOL
The police station comes alive. There is typing and clicking, computers whir, murmurs rise. “Good this is good, keep her talking.” The detective pats the air, tells me to go slowly, like I’m cutting the wires on a bomb. Red or blue?
SSgtHernandez 9:05pm: Are you home? Where are you?
armybrat4evr12 9:05pm: with a friend
SSgtHernandez 9:05pm: which friend?
The screen says ‘typing’ for a while. Too long.
armybrat4evr12 9:08pm: are you talking to mom?
I am mom, I want to scream. I’m the one who’s here! Not your dad who forgets to call you, and spent our tax return on his gaming rig instead of Christmas for his daughter. I’m the one who’s always here, taking the brunt of your shit and hatred 24/7! I’ve been knocking on this cottage door for hours. WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?
SSgtHernandez 9:08pm: are you at amy’s house? jennifer’s?
armybrat4evr12 9:08pm: just a friend. he’s cool you don’t know him
SSgtHernandez 9:08pm: tell me who, punkin, I need to know you’re safe
armybrat4evr12 9:10pm: opsec, daddy ;-) right?
SSgtHernandez 9:10pm: go home, Mila
armybrat4evr12 9:11pm: am never going back there mom hates me
SSgtHernandez 9:11pm: mom loves you. we both do
armybrat4evr12 9:12pm: she says she doesn’t want to deal with my ‘attitude’ now she doesn’t have to
I almost drop the phone. That’s never what I meant. Never. The entire police station is giving me side-eye.
SSgtHernandez 9:13pm: we’re both so worried Mila, go home
armybrat4evr12 9:15pm: am not a child, don’t order me around
SSgtHernandez 9:15pm: please punkin
armybrat4evr12 9:16pm: anyways am leaving see you later
The detective curses. “Alert the airports. Possible intent to transport a minor across state lines.”
“We ain’t finding this kid alive,” some cynic mutters. He doesn’t care that I can hear him; they all think I deserve this. Brought it on myself.
My hands are shaking, I can’t see the screen. She’s gone again. The cottage door is still shut. People are typing, fingertips clacking on keyboards. They stare at screens. They’re analyzing metadata and triangulating and diving deep into the hidden things on her laptop, and no one is moving, no one is running to save my daughter!
Why am I sitting in this room? I must race down the road, over the bridge, through the town, across the field and deep into the woods.. The mother must suffer and journey and search and trick. She must earn her children back.
“Take a seat, ma’am. Let us do our jobs.”
“Found him,” someone says, like this is a movie. Everyone gathers around the computer.
Do you know the end of this story? The witch strikes a bargain with the mother—wait. We’re not there yet. First the mother enters the cottage.
She doesn’t see her children, only a feast laid out on the table. There are rotting remnants of past feasts in the corners: bones and crumbs and spent, rancid cooking oil. There are sticky cakes crawling with ants; the witch has nibbled at the crusts but left the food intact. There is a tub of jelly she scoops at and spreads across toast and ham. She doesn’t finish the food. She plays with it; she keeps it for later. She lets it decay and mold, then eats more.
There are no pictures of this in the storybook. But it is what happened. It is how the cottage looks. The mother steps into the cottage to rescue her children and she cannot breathe because of the stench, she cannot see for the flies. I know how she gagged, how she retched, because I have emptied my stomach three times and I am perpetually on the edge of screaming, and this is only a story, only a story. It is a story, pay attention it is a STORY.
The witch is a man, a real man, who has a mother, and who walked home from school himself as a kid. He is not a mystical hag with a hunchback and a magical candle; he is a man you could pass in the grocery store, a man who walks his dog, who devours children, who lives in the filth of his gluttony and he always uses his blinker when he changes lanes, and he tells little girls that he loves them and that they need to prove they love him back. Just open the door, or meet me near your bus stop. Just light a match and tell me what time your mom comes home.
He is a man named David, and his cottage is not in the woods. It is on Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat and a fucking shared google drive Word document. He is in love with six other little girls. Twelve years old, thirteen. Younger.
He tells my daughter, the girl I birthed and raised and cradled through a bout of whooping cough when she was six months old…he tells my Mila that her mom is a bitch and her dad is probably deployed so long just to get away from his fat bitch wife. He says her dad is an asshole, that he, David, would never go off and leave her behind. He says again and again that I am a major cunt. She likes that he uses adult words with her. He tells her she’s so mature for her age. She’s not stuck up like other girls. She’s special. (Haven’t I told her she’s special?) He shows her how to delete conversations, and how to get around parental blocks on the cell phone I gave her for emergencies. This is the cottage I have entered. This is where I see how he is making a feast of my daughter. It is where I see the feasts he’s already eaten, and how he convinced my little girl to open the door. To take off her shirt, to send him pics. If she loves him, she’ll let him touch. Shh, don’t tell anyone, it has to be a secret.
This is the cottage, but I am inside. Now the mother rescues her children.
It’s too late, Harridan Sack tells the mother. I’ve already turned them into food and I am ready to feast. But our mother can’t have come this far in the story for nothing. Witches abide by rules, and bargains are their weakness.
The mother must name her children; identify which child was turned into which item of food. Figure it out on the first try, and they’re yours, Harridan bargains.
Prove how well you know them. Prove that you love them more than I do. If you just love them enough, you can have them back. They won’t be food anymore. You can return home and live happily ever after. If you love them enough.
You know what happens. Mothers know their children. One child asked the mother to get crackers at the market. She must be the cheese. Another wanted salt, he must be the fish. The next child, the next and so on. She names them to Harridan Sack, with the crooked back, who made a bargain and cannot retract. She says their names and they transform. No longer cheese and fish and milk, her six children emerge from the dining table with gratitude. They promise to always follow the rules! That’s the point of this, isn’t it? Follow the rules children, or a witch might eat you! Know your children, mother, or you’ll lose them.
I look around this man’s cottage. I don’t recognize my daughter. The girl taking those pictures, the one complaining about school and her dad and me, the girl LMFAOing and using words we don’t say at home. This is not the toddler that wiped her frosting covered mouth on the arm of our couch. It’s not the fifth grader that draws pictures of pandas all over her notebooks. It’s not the girl that plunks Alouette on the piano until I want to tear my hair out. That girl isn’t in this cottage. She opened the door and played with fire and the witch has transformed her into food and I can’t prove I love her enough because I don’t recognize her.
“Did you know about this?” they keep asking. “Did you know?”
No, I didn’t know. I love this girl, I love her and love her and I didn’t know.
They find her, twenty-three hours after she opened the door and the raven watched a monster take my daughter away. David sent pictures, and someone saw something in the background. They matched his face to a previous arrest. He has a driver’s license; he has an address. David has a trailer–in the goddam woods–and a SWAT team storms in and does not knock, or empty pockets or take off their shoes before crossing the threshold.
I’m shivering in flashes of red and blue when they pull her out, kicking and cursing. They find my baby girl and I say her name over and over, but my Mila does not magically reappear. The bargain is a lie. She has been in the witch’s hut. She could not come back unchanged.
My daughter isn’t joyful or repentant. I have betrayed her. They are going to hurt him and she loves him and she doesn’t want anyone to get in trouble and SHE HATES ME. She is twelve years old and I have rescued her from the witch. She is alive and she is safe and she wants her dad and she hates me.
The story mother drives Harridan Sack out of the woods, through the town and off a cliff. She is never seen again. The story does not say how there are other witches, and the mother will see their faces everywhere for the rest of her life. It does not mention that she stops sleeping at night. Or how her children cry for Harridan Sack and refuse to testify in court. The story does not say how worthless restraining orders are against witches.
It’s a story. A monster tricks some children and turns them into food. It is a thing that happened. It can happen again. A story, only a story.
Pay attention, it is my story.
About the Author
Kaitlyn is a former Marine intelligence officer and current SFF writer living in Japan with her spouse and four kids. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise and an associate editor over at PodCastle. Her first story was published in Silk & Steel: A Queer Speculative Adventure Anthology, and you can find more of her work at Cast of Wonders. She has never lived in one place longer than 3 years and is frequently paralyzed by the question, “So where are you from?”
About the Narrator
Jasmine Blake has been an avid enthusiast of fiction throughout her life and she is thrilled to be involved with this project.