Jonathan pushed Meredith against the fence and kissed her. The girl threw her arms around his neck and pressed her lips against his with such passion that it stirred in him things he could not understand.
– Do you love me, Jon?
– You know I do, Meredith!
– Then you will not try to follow me tomorrow.
The boy said nothing, only breathed in the air she exhaled and with his forehead against hers searched inside the black eyes of the girl; he found in there only the shadows of things unknown to him.
– Did you hear me, Jon?
– I heard you.
– Did you understand me?
– I understood you.
The girl smiled and kissed him softly and whispered.
– I love you very much, Jon, and I want you to be the father of my children but first I must do this.
– You don’t have to.
– I want to!
– And it’s the right thing to do, Jon, for us and for the village.
The boy’s hand squeezed her breast under the shirt, she watched him thinking thoughts she knew very well; of fear and of concern.
– I don’t care about the village! I don’t want to loose you, Meredith.
– And you won’t. You’ll see, I’ll come back from the woods before you know it and then we will be together forever. But you have to let me do this, Jon, alone. Promise me.
The boy tried to avoid the answer and kiss her but she bit softly his lower lip whispering.
– Promise me, Jonathan.
– Do what you have to do, Meredith.
And he kissed her one last time that evening.
Meredith entered the forest.
Jonathan watched the dark sky redden and remembered his thoughts from before their last kiss.
"Do what you have to do, Meredith, and I will do what I can do."
And he followed her.
"I will not loose you, Meredith! I don’t care about traditions and I don’t trust witches! And if I can’t stop you, at least I’ll make sure nothing happens to you!"
He hid behind the trees, one by one, careful not to be seen, following the girl as she walked deeper into the forest. The path was getting narrower and soon, he knew very well, would stop. From there Meredith would have to find by herself the way to the witch.
– Stupid tradition, he grunted as he watched her.
"Every girl before she weds, send her to see me."
The witch had asked that from the villagers in exchange for the benefits of her vicinity. Witches brought good weather and rich harvests to the villages around their houses and it was the custom for them to ask for certain things, as a payment. Never money, just… strange things: all the feathers of all the chicken in the village every ten months; a great bonfire before the forest on certain days, with dances and songs; every second new-born in the village to be named by her. Things like that. This witch had asked, ten years ago when she had settled in their forest, to send to her every girl before she weds. And they did, the village sent them and, of course, they prospered, households grew, animals were bigger, their young ones stronger, healthier, crops were richer. But when the girls came out of the forest, Jonathan remembered a few times when they couldn’t even walk, they had been brought out and left at the borders of the forest by Treemen and from there stumbled back home crying. They wouldn’t say what had happened and many canceled the wedding; when they did marry, it was with another boy and they didn’t go back to the witch. They just got married.
Not all of them came out of the forest like that but the exceptions – girls who returned smiling and laughing and went on to marry the boys who were waiting for them – were too few. Nobody knew what happened in the forest but whatever the Witch had done to those other girls, he was not going to allow her to do it to his Meredith. Whatever it was.
Jonathan stopped for a second the waves of thoughts in his mind and breathed in deeply. Pine and dry lives and morning air.
The forest. He knew it well, he had played among its trees all his childhood but now, now it seemed different. As if he was an intruder there that day. No matter, he thought, no matter. And he began following the distant Meredith.
He watched the girl as she stepped off the path as if following another one, one seen only by her and he knew: it was HER guiding Meredith.
The witch. Jonathan followed from a distance Meredith and thought about the first time, and the only time he had met her.