Once there was a woman named Gilly who lived alone in the woods. This was at a time when any woman who lived alone was suspected of being a witch, especially if she lived in the woods, and certainly if she was at all clever. Cleverness was not a concern for Gilly, at least not the kind of cleverness for which witches are accused. She was a simple and lonely girl, living a simple and lonely life in a small house in the woods.
Then came a dark and stormy night, when a stranger knocked at her door. In the old days, common wisdom said that you must always show kindness to strangers who show up begging at your door for food or shelter, for they might be gods in disguise.
This stranger said outright, before even the courtesy of a greeting, “I am a god.” Then he slumped to Gilly’s floor. “Please help me.”
In that posture, he didn’t look all that godly to Gilly. He wore tattered, blood-stained clothes, had a scraggly, blood-stained beard, and his skin was marked by boils and, of course, blood. Gilly had never heard of any god looking so disheveled. God or not, she couldn’t leave him slumped and bloody at her door. She pulled him to her bed, ripped away his soiled rags, and tried to clean his skin.
“You’ve done me kindness,” the stranger said. “But I’m afraid it’s for nothing so long as poison ruins me inside.”
“Who poisoned you?” Gill asked.
“A monstrous and powerful witch. What else could poison a god? Besides a goddess. I asked for her help, to give me a potion, Good’s Green. Instead she gave me something full of innocents’ blood and an old venom, and I’ve been coughing up my own blood as it shrivels and crushes my innards. So I come to you, a woman rumored to be a witch, but who is not.”
“That’s right. I’m not. How could I help you then?”
“Go to this witch’s house and steal Good’s Green. It will cleanse me.” The stranger nodded. “And think, woman. If you work against this witch’s wishes, no one will think you’re on her side. They’ll realize you’re no witch—just a woman who prefers her own company.”
Gilly liked the sound of this. No more taunting when she went to town, no more thrown filth, no more fear. “What would I have to do?”
“Her home is north of here, much deeper in the woods than yours, in a place that is always cold no matter the season. Wait for midnight, when she leaves to do her deeds and then break into her house. The potion is green. Only, be sure it isn’t poison. The poison looks the same and another dose would surely kill even a god.”
Gilly promised to be careful and set off into the storm. The going was hard, as if whatever gods or spirits ruled the elements didn’t want the potion found. This seemed even more so when the rain falling on Gilly turned to snow. Then she walked into what felt like a tree, but turned out to be a wide house. She had arrived without knowing it.
She couldn’t tell exactly when was the middle of the night, but a peek in the window told her no one was home. A rock sailed through the glass and she carefully climbed inside. The house was littered with vials, bottles, cauldrons, bones, and all manner of traditional witchcraft. Gilly lit a candle and searched and searched, keeping an eye out for anything liquid and green. She found two things, two identical bottles full of identical lime green fluid. Neither was labeled.
“This is ridiculous,” Gilly muttered. “They aren’t even labeled. How can the witch herself tell them apart?”
“Any witch worth her salt could tell these brews apart,” said a deep voice in the darkness. Two gnarled fingers reached out and pinched the candle’s flames. “And any burglar worth her salt knows not to light a fire in what’s supposed to be an empty home. It tells the rightful owner that a stranger has come.”
Gilly felt the hulking witch press close. From what little she could make out, the woman was indeed monstrous. She towered over Gilly, and her jaw hung open wider than a bear’s limbs when they gripped Gilly by the shoulders and lifted her off the ground.
“So, you want to know which is potion and which is poison?” the witch asked. “Let this witch help you find out.” With one hand she held Gilly and her fingers forced open the smaller woman’s mouth. With her other hand, she grabbed the two bottles and poured half a mouthful of each down Gilly’s throat at the same time.
Gilly writhed from tongue to toe. The witch began cackling as she neared the broken window. Then she threw Gilly out into the storm and didn’t stop laughing until the writhing woman had vanished into the darkness. The monstrous witch had a monstrous arm, and Gilly was thrown so far that she landed outside of the cold place around the witch’s house. She hit the mud face-first. Rain pounded her still quivering body. Soon it shook the soil loose beneath it and as the storm carried on, Gilly sank beneath the earth.
The next day was bright and sunny, as days often are after dark and stormy nights. These are days of growth for all that is green, and had anyone been looking, they would have seen this was true even in the place where Gilly had vanished. A stubby green sprout stuck from the soil, its end curling like a crooking finger. From dawn to dusk, it drank the sun’s warmth, growing little by little until night fell.
On the second day since Gilly vanished, a small, skinny tree rose from the spot of the sprout, reaching as high as a man’s head. Tiny green buds dotted its pale branches, and like the sprout before it, this tree and its buds drank sunlight and grew. That night was another dark and stormy one, worse than the last, and while many smaller plants were smothered in mud, the strange tree only grew higher.
On the third day, someone finally came by the site of Gilly’s disappearance and took note of the new tree. He was Lord Reese, and he was only the first someone whose jaw dropped and whose eyes widened when he saw what the tree’s buds had become. The next someone was his squire, Thomas, and then behind him came various knights and young lords, eleven in all, as well as their servants and squires. Each of them had an open mouth and absent eyelids.
The tree had grown thick and mighty in the night, its limbs each wide as a man’s chest, and a great deal stronger. There were several of them, stretching out just over the heads of the mounted men, and each carried what had once been tiny green buds. Now they had grown into bulging green sacks, covered in a translucent membrane, and the shape of a grown woman sat in each one.
“It’s a woman tree,” Thomas said. “My brother said they don’t grow on trees, but he was wrong!”
“And naked women from what I can see,” said Lord Reese. “Thomas, cut one down and we’ll see what we’re dealing with.”
Thomas did as he was told, climbing the tree and cutting one green sack loose from a limb. It plopped to the ground and split open like an overripe fruit. The woman within crawled out and stood. Not one man present would’ve recognized her, for they were too important to remember the face of Gilly, but the woman from the tree looked much like her, if only a few years younger and with fewer blemishes. She was beautiful and every man present recognized it.
Lord Reese dismounted and bowed before the naked woman. “My lady, I am a great lord and these men are my friends and sworn swords. What trickery is this that you and your sisters should grow from a tree?”
The woman didn’t react, as if she understood not one word. Lord Reese tried five languages before giving up on speaking. He touched her shoulder, hoping to ingrain some sense of importance in her, and like a mirror she touched his. When he moved closer to her, she took a step close to him. And when faced with that beauty, Reese thought it only his lordly right to kiss her, and in response she kissed him too. The kiss went on for a long while, long enough for the other men to grow restless and begin cutting down women of their own. Like the first, they all resembled Gilly, and they all mimicked what actions were done towards them, as if they were learning.
Lord Reese’s kiss finally ended and he saw what had happened around him. The tree as barren of women, and every woman was now wrapped in the arms of a young lord, a knight, or a squire. Some of them were married and likely wouldn’t want their wives to know of this miracle.
“To the inn!” Lord Reese cried. His men laughed and bellowed back, “To the inn!” They mounted their horses once more and pulled the women up with them. Some of the more decent men wrapped cloaks around the women’s shoulders and fronts, but most left them exposed, for it was a warm day and the men’s blood was hot.
The company soon reached the inn where they often stayed when their hunts took them far from home. Lord Reese was well-known and well-liked there for his generosity and high spirits. When the innkeeper saw them approach with so many naked women in tow, he quickly had the biggest room prepared for a night of drinking and debauchery.
Drink they did and then men introduced the women to the wonders of wine. Some showed their ladies dancing. Eventually almost all men took their ladies to bed, or couch, or seat, or floor, anywhere they could find room.
Only Thomas didn’t, for he drank too much for his size, stumbled outside, passed out on the inn’s doorstep, and there he spent the night. When he woke up, his head ached and there was no woman in sight. He slunk back into the inn, somewhat ashamed, and was about to order a breakfast of sausages when he heard a woman’s shriek. Then several other women screamed, and finally a whole room’s worth of women screamed. Thomas hurried from his seat and rushed to the room of last night’s great party.
The room was full of women, all those from the tree and more, all identical in every way. Some screamed, looking down at their bodies, and others mimicked them.
“Lord Reese?” Thomas called. “Where are you?”
“Here, Thomas,” said a feminine voice. One of the women stepped forward, covering her nakedness with Lord Reese’s crumpled clothes. “I’m right here.”