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Of House and Home
The sharp rapping on her window shook her with a start. She turned her head. She saw nothing. The sound knocked louder against the walls of the house, ringing on all sides in quick succession. Age shook her hand as she reached for the lantern hanging next to the hearth. She held it above her head and, leaning on her cane, shuffled across the floor with short, shaking steps. Bracing the staff under her arm, her quivering hand made its way out to pull back the thinning curtain.
Darkened forms appeared behind the frosted glass. Baba Alizon held the lantern closer until its heat erased a clear circle revealing the silhouettes of two children. They stood at ease, side by side, a few steps back from the windowpane.
The boy was dressed in a red plaid shirt buttoned up to his neck and at his wrists. Over the shirt he wore a pair of long legged, brown lederhosen. His dishwater blond hair was brushed off to the right of his forehead. The round skull was the shape of a melon. It sat on a stout neck and a portly child’s body.
Standing next to him was an even younger girl with strawberry blond hair hanging in two curls behind her head. She was dressed in an orange dirndl with puffy white sleeves. An apron was wrapped around her waist with a pattern of orange suns scattered across. Stark white lace crossed over a nonexistent bodice. She wore a pair of white stockings pulled up to her knees.
The two children stood calmly on the other side of the glass. They stepped closer, into the lantern’s light, revealing their faces. Two wide sets of black eyes gazed up from pale white skin. An impish grin spread in unison across their crimson red lips as they looked up into the old woman’s wrinkled face. Neither child wore a jacket. Neither child shivered in the cold.
“Good evening, Blessed Ona,” the young boy cheerfully greeted. “I am Hansel and this is my sister, Gretel. It is such a cold night and we have lost our way. Might you be as kind as to let us in?”
Baba Alizon felt the unfamiliar pains of empathy beginning to blossom within her. Her instincts yearned to open the door and take the young ones to her hearth and heart, to give them warmth, and to nurture them. The feelings were compelling, if not unnatural and foreign, to her mind.
Maternity was something bartered away long ago in exchange for the hidden secrets of witchcraft. No Baba would ever give birth. Instead, she would learn the ancient knowledge forever written in the Book of Memory. The Grimoire could be traced back to the goddess Freja, Mother of Witches, who chose the first Baba Yaga, making her Mother of Crones. For surrendering the rights of reproduction, the Great Mother would send an ingénue to the Baba in time. The wisdom would be passed down from one to the next until the protégé was initiated, forsaken mortal rights, and given the title of Baba along with an extended lifespan. Each Baba added to the book keeping the secrets of the long line of ancestral crones.
“You must be frozen, my little lambs,” Baba Alizon said with a warm, toothless smile. “You are but babes all alone. How old are you, my little ones?”
“I am seven.” Hansel proudly answered. “My sister is five.”
“Why are you by yourselves?” The crone asked. “Why do you have no coats?”
“We were on an outing with our father.” Hansel answered. “We fell asleep under a tree and woke to find him gone. He must have forgotten we were there. Now we find ourselves alone, hungry and cold.”
The young boy threw his arms around his sister pulling her tightly to him. His hand raced around the girl’s tiny shoulders with exaggerated movements.
“Please, good mother. May we come inside to warm ourselves?”
The storm outside quieted down settling into an eerie silence. Baba Alizon placed the lamp on the ledge so she might unlock the door. The light shone out through the window, splashing a dim glow onto the children’s faces. She saw the sets of eager, shiny black eyes staring up at her. A heavy chill seeped into the room, slithering tightly about her shoulders. She felt her heart breaking with sympathy, and her hand reaching for the latch.
A sprig of lavender fell from over the doorway. Baba Alizon froze in place watching the protective warning fall to the floor. She pulled her hand back, clasping tighter to the cane in her other hand, and exhaled a steady slow stream of breath. The chill broke from her shoulders.
“Please, kind mother.” Hansel begged, seeing her hesitation. “We are cold and hungry. You are alone. Won’t you let us in before we catch our death?”
Baba Alizon turned back to the children with renewed interest and greater hesitation. She closed her tired eyes, sniffing the air deeply, relying on her heightened olfactory senses. The smell returned to her with a tainted flavor bubbling within the rich sweetness of children’s blood. She closed her eyes to access the Book of Memory, searching for the answer. She quickly found the century old records of Baba Dahrya.
“Be careful of children that appear in the autumn’s storm,” the Ancestral Hag wrote in the Great Book of Memory. “For they are Campion. They are hybrid bastards resulting from Incubus and human relations, and are abandoned at birth. These creatures look like children. At age seven they transform fully into their true demon selves. They search for a home using charm spells on those that live there. The Campion consume everything like insects—the house first and then those inside, or the other way around. The Campion can only be killed in daylight, when they cannot shape-shift, and so they hide when the sun rises. Only a mortal can kill the Campion.”
“Good mother.” The boy’s pleas pulled Baba Alizon from her thoughts. “Please let us in, for if you do not we will surely freeze.”
The old crone banished the demon’s charm spell. She clutched tightly to the stone handle in her cane and took a deep breath. Letting it out slowly, she breathed onto the windowpane, fogging up the partition between herself and the children. When the breath disappeared from the glass, the children’s true forms were momentarily revealed.
Hansel’s face appeared maliciously twisted. Two horns jutted from the top of his skull, sticking out of the straight blond hair. His ears grew into curled points twitching from either side of his head. The sharp fangs from his mouth curled down to his chin, and the black eyes bore red vertical pupils. A menacing grimace spread across his ruby lips. Razor talons extended from each of his fingers.
Gretel’s face changed less dramatically, being younger and not yet fully having inherited her demonic birthright. Her skin drew back across her face leaving her with glaring, skeletal features. Her reflective eyes were wide with the same blood-red vertical centers as her brother. Her crimson lips drew back to a terrifying grimace, exposing a set of baby’s teeth with the beginnings of fangs at the edges. She had not yet developed talons but small, pointed fingers with sharpened nails.
As the window’s opaqueness returned, all traces of the children’s demon alternatives vanished. Their normal-appearing facades came back at once.