In the Woods, My Voice
by Rati Mehrotra
Read by Alethea Kontis
Listen to the audio version
When Grandma died, she left her two most precious possessions to my sisters. To my
older sister Jeet--the plain and clever one--went the magical flute that could charm any listener.
To my younger sister Jamila--the pretty and brave one--went the protective stick that could
fight off unsuitable admirers and monsters alike.
And to me, Jerri, the graceless middle one?
"To you, best beloved," said Grandma, "I give my voice." She pushed a small velvet box
into my hands. "And now, since it is exactly midnight, I shall die." She fell back on her bed with
a huge sigh, closed her eyes, and pretended to be dead.
All three of us stared at the clock on the wall, and then back at her. She was still
breathing, but none of us dared point that out. At last, after fifteen minutes of ferocious pretence,
Grandma succeeded in dying. Her face, so grim and formidable in life, relaxed into a peaceful
smile. That's how we knew she was really dead.
We buried her in the backyard as she had instructed, under a silver crescent moon. The
next morning, my sisters left our crooked little house in the valley of Carou, as they were meant
to. Jeet went off with her flute to the Court of Kings in the capital, and established herself as the
foremost musician in the land. Armed with the protective stick, Jamila fought her way through
the infested woods beyond our fields and arrived at a neighboring kingdom. She married a duke
and became a high society lady, famous for her tournaments.
But I don't want to talk about them. Can you imagine how I felt when they left me alone
with nothing but Grandma's buried corpse for company? We didn't even have a cat. "Too
stereotypical," Grandma had said when I asked why we couldn't have one.
If you haven't guessed by now that Grandma was a witch, you haven't been paying
attention. Or you don't know your stories, which is even worse. Anyway, I'm telling you now,
she was a witch--a gifted one. She kept the whole valley in a healthy state of fear. We never had
to buy anything; farmers left vegetables on our doorstep, the chicken woman brought eggs, and
the baker's boy came by with fresh buns every Monday. Never a wedding, birth or funeral went
by that Grandma wasn't invited to. Her presence guaranteed that nothing worse than ordinary bad
things would happen. Her spells kept the nastiest of the wood creatures away from homes and
fields, including our mother. That's what she claimed anyway, and who was going to be stupid
enough to ask for proof?
Grandma had been getting old, even for a witch. In her last few months she told everyone
who was unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity the exact day she would die, what she would be
wearing, and how she would be buried. People got used to it after a while. I suppose they all
assumed one of her three granddaughters would take her place. Only one problem with that: none
of us had her gift. Not even me, the middle child--not that I could remember. It didn't drive
Grandma as crazy as you might think, and she never pushed us. She'd learned her lesson with
Mother, I suppose.
One morning, soon after my sisters left without so much as a backward glance, the
baker's boy came huffing up the lane to our cottage. One look at his expression confirmed my
fears: it wasn't buns he was carrying, it was bad news. And hadn't I been expecting it ever since
Sure enough, as soon as he was within earshot, he blurted out, "Miss Jerri, she's here.
Eating the bailiff."
Oh no. The poor man. Mother would never have dared to feed on any of the villagers
while Grandma was alive. And the death of an official--even in far flung Carou--would not go
unnoticed in the capital.
The baker's boy twisted his cap and moaned, "What we gonna do, Miss Jerri?"
I didn't answer him, because I couldn't. When my mother left, she took my voice with
her. I suppose Grandma thought she was being kind, giving me her voice, but I didn't want it.
Grandma's voice was carrying, raspy and judgemental. My own, I was sure, had been nicer, back
when I still had it.
But I waved away the baker's boy, as if I had everything under control. He bobbed his
head and scampered off, no doubt to tell everyone Miss Jerri would fix everything, the way her
Grandma had. Maybe they thought I could bring the bailiff back to life, missing bits and all. Not
even Grandma could do that sort of thing, but she sure made everyone believe it.
I went inside and retrieved Grandma's black velvet box from the mantelpiece, where I
had stuck it between a china pig and a cuckoo clock. It jumped into my hands, impatient to be
used. Did I really want to do this? Did I have any choice?
The door smashed open, carrying with it the stench of raw meat and old sweat, and it was
too late to think about choices. My fingers fumbled at the silver clasp, desperate. But the box
slipped out of my sweaty palms and dropped to the floor.
"Heellloooo my darling, my sweet, my one and only--wait, which one are you?" Mother
stood at the front door, frowning. My heart clenched as I faced her. Bits of earth and leaves fell
from her tangled gray hair and tattered robe. Her mismatched eyes--one silver, one black--raked
my face. Blood left a crimson track from her lips to her chin.
Jerri, the middle sister, I tried to answer, but of course no sound came out of my mouth.
"The dumb one." Mother made a face. "Are you all that's left, then?"
I nodded. My fingers itched to pick up the box.
"Leaf and branch and root!" said Mother. "Just my luck. Well, you will have to do."
I dived to the floor and grabbed the box. Mother flowed. One moment at the door, the
next standing over me, a scabbed and blackened foot crushing my hand. I let go the box and
gasped with pain. Black dots swam before my eyes.
"What's this, then?" she crooned. "A little going-away present from the old crone?
She lifted her foot and waggled a finger at me. I clutched my hand to my chest, hoping
nothing was broken.
Mother swooped down on Grandma's box. Her claw-like hand trembled above the box,
mere inches from my face. She grunted and sweated with effort, but she wasn't able to touch it.
"Gah," she said, straightening up. "It does not matter. In the woods, I have everything I
need, except. . . ," she grinned, revealing sharp yellow teeth, "an apprentice. Just think, little one,
you could be my heir. Or you could be my dinner." She cackled, a terrifying sound that froze my
I tried to resist her, even though it was futile, like trying to resist a hurricane or an
avalanche. But Grandma had told me once that those who left her house willingly could never
return. Jeet and Jamila had gone to their destinies. I was lost, if I allowed Mother to lead me to
mine. I grabbed on to doors, wrapped my arms around furniture, scuttled under tables, and kicked
as hard as I could with my thin legs. At last, after much cursing, Mother dragged me out of the
house by my feet, my head bumping painfully behind.
"Stupid girl," she muttered. "Perhaps you taste better than you look."
I longed to retort. Hot words twisted up my throat and died on my tongue.
And if I could have spoken, what would I have said?
I taste worse than I look, you mad, wicked woman.
What did you do with my voice?
What did you do to yourself?
Hotter and hotter I got, thinking these words. And all the time Mother dragged me down
the lane and across the fields to the woods, as if I was nothing but a sack of coals. When the
woods closed over us, all sound died except the roaring of blood in my ears. Thick vines,
crimson flowers and pale mushrooms clustered on the trunks of ancient trees. But not a bird
called; not a squirrel chittered in the undergrowth.
At last, at the edge of a clearing, Mother dropped my feet and delivered a kick to my
"Get up and make yourself useful. Start a fire. Find a frog and boil it with leaves of elder
My mouth was dry, but I gathered what moisture I could in my mouth, and spat. A few
droplets landed on Mother's face. Smoke curled upward and she screamed, clawing her cheeks. I
was so astonished, I barely felt it when she slapped me. Once, twice, thrice, until my jaw ached.
She pushed her face close to mine. Angry, rotting-meat breath made me gag. "If you do that
again," she hissed, "I'll boil you instead of the frog."
It was then, when her mismatched silver-black eyes were fixed on mine and my heart was
pumping fit to bust my ribcage, that I remembered: they weren't always like this. My mother's
eyes were once dark brown, like mine.
And on the heels of that, another memory, sharp as a knife: she didn't take my voice. I
gave it to her.
A scene flashed before me, like the turning of a page in a book I didn't know was in my
Mother, kneeling on the kitchen floor, weeping while Grandma stands above her. "Who
did you take this time?" says Grandma, quiet. "Must I always be cleaning up after you?"
"I'll never do it again," says Mother, her beloved face blotchy. "I swear by leaf and
branch and root."
"That's what you always say." And now Grandma sounds old and tired. But there is
nothing tired about the stroke of her arm as it wields the moonberry cane, her instrument of
choice. Hidden behind the door to the parlour, we watch in horror as it lands with a sharp, wet
thwack on our mother's bare back. Again and again, until her skin is reduced to bloody ribbons
and I have to put my hand on Jamila's mouth to prevent her from screaming.
We decided it without words, without thoughts, for Grandma would have heard those,
and stopped us. Mother was weak, and we had to make her strong. We all gave her what we
could. Jeet--the eldest at thirteen--gave Mother her radiant beauty; Jamila--the youngest at
seven--gave her boundless strength. And I gave my voice of power. At ten, one does not think of
consequences. That was what Grandma said later, after the punishment and before the memory
spell. Honeysuckle dew, sucked from the throat of a living hummingbird under a gibbous moon,
to make us remember the lesson and forget how it was learned.
Perhaps the memory spell had weakened after Grandma's death, or perhaps it was
because I was no longer in Grandma's house. But I remembered now what she did to us. She
strung us upside down on the clothesline for three days while crows pecked the flesh of our feet
and mice nibbled our hair and ears. My sisters shrieked with pain and fear, but I did not have the
luxury of screaming myself. When Grandma finally cut us down, we were reduced to crawling,
gibbering idiots. It took days to walk upright again. I never spoke another word.
And in the end, whatever we gave our mother, it was not enough--or perhaps it was too
much. Beautiful, strong, mouthy and magical, she fought Grandma spell for spell, until Grandma
drove her out--out of the house, out of the village, out of the valley, and into the woods where
fearsome things dwelt. There my mother lived, until she became the most fearsome thing herself.
And thinking of this, of how unfair it all was, tears stung my eyes.
My mother drew back and cocked her head. "Cry into the pot, my darling. Add some salt
to the mix." She cackled at her joke.
My voice, all distorted and ugly from my mother's mouth. I wasn't sure I wanted it back,
but I couldn't leave it with her. While she was all a-cackle, I thrust my hand into her open mouth
and reached into her throat. She gagged and flailed and bit down on my forearm. I thrust deeper,
ignoring the pain, and caught hold of my voice. All slippery with the slime of years it was, and
reluctant to leave my mother's warm, dark throat. But I dragged it out, gray and smelly and
"No!" my mother screamed in her own weak little voice. She lunged at me, and the voice
dropped from my hand. It scuttled under the roots and up the tree behind me, a scared spider with
too many legs.
My mother threw me on my back and gripped me with her bony knees. Her hands closed
over my throat. She still had Jamila's strength, and I had about sixty seconds to live. I wished I'd
been kinder to my sisters, and not so afraid of Grandma. I wished I'd been able to protect my
mother from herself. I wished I hadn't given her my voice. I opened my mouth, struggling to
And the little gray spider leaped from the tree trunk straight into my mouth.
I could tell you it tasted good, that I was glad to have it back. But I'd be lying. It was the
most horrible thing I have ever tasted, including Grandma's medicines. I gulped it down anyway.
In my throat there was a brief battle between my voice and my mother's fingers. The voice won; I
managed to keep it down.
"Let me go," I whispered, all ragged-edged. Mother stumbled back as if she had been
pushed, and I sat up, massaging my neck. Her silver eye had faded to a reddish-brown, but the
other was as black as ever. She snarled and gnawed her fist, and there was murder in both eyes.
Too far gone. I wanted to cry.
I stood and dusted my robe. Every part of me ached, but nothing so much as the place
where the heart supposedly resides.
I held out my hand. "Come home with me," I pleaded. "Grandma is dead. Jeet and Jamila
are gone. It's just you and me now. We could make a fresh start."
For a moment, she hesitated. For a moment, I allowed myself to consider the possibility
that I could get my mother back.
Her hand twitched, and something zinged through the air faster than thought. A little
black-handled blade buried itself in my chest. I sank down to the forest floor, stunned. Mother
laughed, a high, crazy sound.
Bailiff-eater, daughter-killer, your time is done. Unbidden, the words of a curse came to
me, and I spoke them aloud. They rose into the air, filling it with the dark fragrance of a death
My mother's face contorted and collapsed. Her flesh sizzled and I heard the crack of
bones. No. I didn't mean that. I wanted to claw back the words, undo the spell. But it was too
late. My mother was dead. Her blackened body crumbled to ash before my horrified eyes.
I touched the hilt of the blade in my chest; my hands came away covered with blood.
"And now I can die too," I murmured. I was in so much pain, it would be a relief to let go.
"What nonsense," said Grandma's voice in my ear. "Have I taught you nothing?"
I grabbed at my hair and snagged something: a throbbing, silver-green fish of a voice. "You hid in my hair?" I said in disbelief. "How did you get out of the box?"
"I was never in the box," said the voice, smug. "I was with you all this time."
I thought of Mother, and my fist tightened over Grandma's voice. "Give me one good
reason I shouldn't burn you too."
"The bailiff," said the voice hurriedly. "We might be able to bring him back." A pause,
while I digested this. Then--"I am sorry, Jerri. I made many mistakes. But those who long for
shadows will find them, no matter how hard we try to bring them to the light."
I stayed there awhile, thinking things through, while Grandma's voice spoke a spell of
healing and dissolved the blade in my chest. When I was able, I rose and gathered Mother's ashes
into a pot and buried it, digging the soft earth with my hands. I spoke the words for farewell, the
words for peace. Perhaps that would be enough to lay down her ghost.
Later that night, as I brushed my teeth in an effort to get rid of the horrible taste of my
voice, I noticed something odd about my face in the mirror. I leaned and stared. One eye had
turned silver; the other was still dark brown.
Grandma says it doesn't mean anything, but I'm not so sure. Every night I look in the
mirror, and watch my other eye darken until I can no longer distinguish the pupil from the iris. I
think of my voice, nestled in my mother's throat for the last twenty years, and wonder where its
The wind blows cold and owls hoot in the trees. I walk in the moonlight, seeking