I could not stand my body. I could not stand my thighs and crooked teeth that rubbed together like uneven beach stones caught in waves; hair curled and oily against my face; this misshapen frame. I asked her to give me a body sleek and strong like the computer-crafted beauties of banners and posters.
The witch did not look at me. She stirred her tea, adjusted her shawl, glittering black like wild iron. Minutes seemed to pass before she lifted up her tea, blew across her cup, and said, “It is done. Tomorrow, you will be new.”
As she said, when I woke the next morning, I was new.
Sour-milk skin had fallen away, replaced by scales, glimmering, sparrow-breast speckled brown and white. My legs severed or absorbed, gone either way. Instead, there was a body that was a rope of muscle, a body seemingly endless. And my teeth: gone were disjointed molars, yellowed incisors. Now, my mouth was full of curved fangs, jaws strung with sickle moons. I was not a woman of beer advertisements and magazine covers. Still, I was beautiful.
But I was not happy.
The second time I saw the witch, I asked for protection. It did not matter to the men of the world I had a new shape. It did not matter to their hands reaching in the dark and the words spat in the light. It did not matter if I was soft or dressed in my living armor. They always found a way to cut into the flesh or furrows of the mind. I begged for safety, begged for the witch to give me a weapon to protect myself.
Again, she did not meet my eyes. This time, her hands, which had been like foraging starlings, hopping from task to task, froze. But it was only for a moment, ended as she picked up her spoon to stir her tea. As metal bounced against ceramic, she said, “It is done. Tomorrow, you’ll have your protection.”
When I woke up the next day, I had my armor.
Men who demanded my smile earned a grin of razors dripping venom. I could give a kiss that would darken their flesh, rot them through until their bones were laid open. Perhaps, if I could pry them apart, the wind would blow them clean, lick their wounds close. I pitied them. They didn’t even realize their souls were being gnawed by the shadows of monsters who had come before them, nor that their minds shackled by chains made by their own hand.
The third time I saw the witch, I was dying.
I had everything I could want—beauty, safety. I wrapped the illusion of security around me like a fine dress. I did not even see the sneering and shifting eyes until it was too late. I did not see the small aggressions until they morphed into shouts, fists, a death sentence.
The men who had put fear into me and now feared me snatched me from the safety of my home. They used anything they had to beat me. They hit me until I screamed. They hit me until I couldn’t make a sound anymore.
Slowly, I felt myself slipping, ethereal cords loosening on my mortal form. As I hovered above my body, the witch appeared before me. She was like me, invisible to the men below who continued to abuse what was left of me in this world. I pleaded, as I had before, to be spared. I asked her to turn her wrath upon my attackers, turn them to stone so they may feel the breaking of their bodies, the punishment inflicted on me, for millennium. I wanted her to sew the thread of soul and body back together so I could live again. She said nothing, only shook her head.
When she would not help me, I raged at her. It was all her fault. She must have known this would have happened. She had probably done this a million times, giving wishes at a terrible price.
“You’re right, I knew this would happen,” she said, “but it would happen regardless if I had interfered. I saw your fate the first time I saw your face.”
We drifted farther away from the scene. The pain was a distant memory. In fact, all my worries became like a phantom limb, something that had been so essential to my life but was now gone. Curiosity lingered, though, and I asked her why she helped me. What was the point if I was doomed to die?
“I have seen this a thousand times. I have tried to stop this, but for every one of you I save, it seems seven more die. I may be a witch, but I have only so much magic and there is so much evil in the hearts of men.”
The shawl wound around her body. Wild iron fabric hardened, split into scales. “But I can do this thing for you . . .”
I followed her eyes back down to my body. We watched a man approach with a shovel. With one quick swing, he severed my head clean from my body. A cheer rang up through the men, only to be stopped short as my head twitched, burying fangs into the leg of my executioner. When others tried to help, their reward was a handful of teeth. The witch smiled, showing her own mouth of fangs, bright and sharp like the coils of solar light. “Even cut from the body, a snake’s head can still bite.”