Maggoty Meg Flies Up the Mountain
Jonathan Lenore Kastin
They called her Maggoty Meg because her skin was sallow, her arms and legs thin as matchsticks, and her hair the color of sickly carrots. But to herself she was just Meg, and she was tired of being ugly.
The village children would follow as she went about her chores: mucking out the stables, watering the horses, running errands for the cross innkeeper’s wife. Though Meg was nearly nineteen and taller than any of her tormentors, that didn’t stop them from chanting rude rhymes and throwing stones at her back until she was bruised from her shins to her shoulders.
The beautiful children were the cruelest. The baker’s son and the butcher’s daughter with their hair like corn silk and their eyes the color of clear water, skin always rosy and unblemished. They knew how lovely they were and with whispers and smirks they made Meg feel worse than the worms that crawled in the dirt.
It had been raining as she left the market with apples for the horses and a basketful of eggs . The rain made her hair slick and stringy, the muddy streets splattered her skirts, but it kept her tormentors away. Then the rain stopped and soon a chorus of “Maggoty Meg” followed her.
As usual, she turned sharply to give them an earful, but slipped in a puddle and fell. The street filled with laughter, even from passing adults. And the butcher’s daughter, arm in arm with the baker’s son, pointed a perfect finger at her, an ugly curl to her rosy lips.
Meg righted herself and shook off the mud as best she could. But then a stone stung her hip and another grazed her cheek. And another. And another. She took in a deep, racking breath. She was cold and she was miserable and she was not going to let them terrorize her any longer. She left her basket back at the inn and fled. It was time to see the witch.
The stones followed her past the edge of town, but when Mad Annie’s hovel, leaning precariously towards the mountain. came in view, the crowd behind her grew quiet and still. Meg paused at the broken gate,. Afraid. But she had had enough. She looked at the children and put her hand on the gate. They shrieked and ran away.
Her triumph faded as she gazed at the hovel. Smoke came meandering at odd angles out of the chimney, and the windows were dim. She shivered, and her knees wobbled. But she was sick of being laughed at, sick of the stones and the insults. She drew her shawl close, tip-toed through Mad Annie’s overgrown garden, and knocked on the door.
“Who’s there?” croaked a voice.
“It’s Meg,” she said. She was the only Meg in the village.
At first, nothing happened. Then the door yanked open and a small toad of an old woman squinted up at her and harrumphed.
Meg could clearly see that if she was not beautiful then Mad Annie was uglier than the Devil himself. She had a long red nose that grew rounder at the end like a doorknob and her face was covered in brown spots. She was barely half Meg’s height and hair sprouted like tufts of gray weeds on her face.
Mad Annie looked Meg up and down and croaked out, “I know what you’ll be wanting so I’ll save you the trouble. I can’t make you beautiful, don’t even ask. I’m not that sort of witch.”
Meg’s shoulders sagged. “I wouldn’t mind so much but for the stones.”
Mad Annie nodded her shaggy head. “I remember those. They don’t dare do that to me anymore.”
“Can’t you make me a tiny bit beautiful?” she asked, unwilling to lose hope so soon.
“Not even a tiny bit.”
Meg sighed. “I must find someone else then.”
“Wait a minute,” said the old witch, huffing and puffing for breath. “I said I couldn’t make you beautiful. I didn’t say I couldn’t do other things.”
Mad Annie stepped aside and gestured her into the hut, dim and smelling of earth, full of who knew what horrors. Meg hesitated, but she had come this far, and a fire glowed in the hearth.
Mad Annie beckoned her to a stool by the fire and plopped down beside her. She leaned in close and waggled her eyebrows. “Have you ever considered becoming one of us?”
“Us?” Meg drew back, startled.
“A witch, child! A witch!”
Meg shuddered. “Everybody says…”
Mad Annie spat and poked at the fire. “Everybody says? Ha! Jealous, is what they are. Saying we fly naked up to the mountain to eat babies and bats’ wings, that we kiss the backsides of billy goats. As if any witch worth her warts would sail through those frigid mountain passes with not a stitch on. And for what? To show her sagging breasts and knobbly knees? Certainly not! It isn’t like that. And I can show you.” She crossed her arms over her lumpy chest and snorted like a sow.
Meg hesitated. “I won’t sign my soul over to no Devil, if he be up there.”
Mad Annie stamped her foot impatiently. “The Devil’s down here right in the village,” she said. “Up there we each of us get our own what ‘Everybody’ calls Devils.”
Meg wrung her hands, images of horned demons looming in her mind.
“There’s nothing to fear! Come along at the dark of the moon. You’ll never need to feel beautiful again. See for yourself.”
Meg nodded before her courage failed her. When the moon hid its face again she’d return and fly with the old witch up the mountain.
This time, as Meg walked through the rain she held her head high, her heart lighter than it had been in years. It seemed there were fewer shouted insults, fewer bites of stone against her back. She had a secret and a purpose and maybe that was better than straight white teeth and flaxen hair.
A fortnight later Meg rode sidesaddle with Mad Annie on her crooked broom, shivering in the cool spring air as they flew over the fields toward the mountain. She tried not to look down. If she fell to her death only the horses would miss her – who else would braid their hair and feed them apples? She wished she could have ridden them up the mountain.
“Nearly there,” Mad Annie shouted.
Meg could just make out the orange light of a bonfire. The dizzying voice of a fiddle wound up to them on the breeze. She held her breath and clutched the broom tight, peering into the darkness as she searched for the black cauldrons and the terrible, twisted shapes people were always warning about, but she couldn’t see a thing. Then Mad Annie snapped her fingers and the scene below lit up as if from a flash of lightning.
A crowd of witches had gathered on the mountain, yes, but they looked just as human as Meg. Only they were clothed in luminous spider’s silk and velvety flower petals instead of rags. Some danced about the fire, some on chairs of glittering crystal round a banquet table, feasting and drinking and laughing.
“Not quite what you were expecting, is it?” said Mad Annie as they landed with a thump. Meg was startled to find her guide suddenly dressed in a gown of lupin blossoms, her weedy hair swept into a net of silver cobwebs.
Meg gasped, and looked to see her own rags turned into a dress of green moss, her hair woven into a loose braid twined with golden feathers, and her feet were clothed in slippers as light and soft as sea foam. A laugh bubbled from her lips for the first time in many a dreary month and she grabbed Mad Annie’s hand and pulled her toward the table.
“Steady, child,” she cried. “My legs are never so young as yours.”
There were two crystal chairs waiting for them. The men and women were mostly strangers, but a few she recognized from the village. Addled Tate, the town drunk, sat across from her, looking like a fine lord in a frock coat of ivy and holly. The almswoman and the Merchant’s son, who was thrice as ugly as Meg, sat at the end of the table. And Tommy Brown who’d come back from the war with only one leg and was always jumping at shadows sat two witches away.
“Is this… is this real?” Meg asked.
“Aye, child. Those of us cast aside. All here for a modicum of solace. And fine solace it is, too.” She lifted her goblet in a toast. “Try the wine, dear. You’ll never taste its equal back at home.”
The wine tickled its way down her throat, warming and enlivening her. Platter after platter was passed around. Soups and stews, chestnuts and oranges, pastries of almond and lemon curd, steaming goblets of melted chocolate rich with spices. Cheese and bread and honey. Nuts and berries. She was always hungry at the innkeeper’s table, but here she feasted.
“This is better than being beautiful,” she cried, munching on mince pie.
Mad Annie nodded in agreement, her mouth just as full.
But no sooner had they filled their stomachs with food and drink than a cry rang out and everyone started whispering, “The Devils! The Devils! They’re coming!”
Meg thumped down her goblet, shaking. The horrors would come now, surely. She tried to get up, but Mad Annie pulled her down again. A green mist filled the mountain valley, dark shapes forming within. Oh, why had she ever come? Of course the food and fripperies had all been a trap to lure her from her good sense and now she would pay the price.
Then Mad Annie rose up out of her chair and pointed into the mist. “There he is! There’s my captain.”
Meg stared, clutching at the table. She searched the mist. Then, yes, striding out of the mist came an older gentleman with sea green eyes and a tangled beard, swathed in fishermen’s nets. He smiled at Mad Annie and swept her into his arms.
“My Devil!” She swung her arms around his neck and gave him such a kiss Meg blushed and turned away. It was as though Mad Annie were a fairy tale princess. Meg shook her head in confusion. This was no pointy-tailed Devil, no terrible horror.
She looked about her, searching for gruesome horns or sharpened talons, but these Devils looked no more harmful than wild rose brambles. Addled Tate rested his balding head on the bosom of his dead wife, gone these five summers past. The almswoman was running her hands through the black curls of a woman covered in red butterflies. Two girls whose skin shimmered like the scales of a fish led the merchant’s son towards the trees. And Tommy Brown was dancing one-legged in the arms of a young man with alder leaves spilling down his back. Mad Annie went spinning round the bonfire with her sea captain, cackling and whooping.
But there was no one for her. Of course. She sank down into her chair, excitement and terror both draining out of her.
Then there was a soft voice behind her., “Meg?”
She turned to find a young man with eyes as gold as wheat fields in August and a pair of goat’s horns peaking out from beneath brown curls. She had never seen him before and yet she felt as if she had always known him. As a child, maybe, or in dreams, or as an image in the back of her mind while she tended the horses and forgot for a time that she was ugly, that the villagers were cruel.
She nodded. “Are you my Devil?”
He held out his hand and smiled. “I am.” There was dirt under his fingernails and he smelled of pine needles.
Meg squeezed her eyes shut. “This can’t be true I’m just… .”
He brushed his fingers against her cheek and pressed his lips to her ear and whispered. “But no Meg, you are beautiful. In your very soul.”
She shook her head, face burning.
“Let me show you.” He took her hand and kissed it, a featherlight brush of lips that shook her like thunder. Her hair swirled about as in a whirlwind. Wildflowers sprang from the ground where she stood and ivy climbed up her dress, twining through her hair like green lace. She could hear the wind and the trees whispering their secrets. She could feel the underground rivers carrying treasures to the sea. Her skin burned in the moonlight and her heart beat with sap.
She drew back and looked at her hands. Her skin was still sallow, her hair still the color of sickly carrots. But she stood tall now, chin tilted high. For the first time, she felt strength and beauty within her..
She smiled, and took her Devil’s hand in her own.
When she woke the next morning she lay in her own lumpy bed, her clothes mud-stained and tattered once more. She stared up at the dark cob-webbed thatched roof above her, trying not to sob. A dream, it had all been just a dream. She turned to bury her face in her straw-stuffed mattress, then sat up, astonished. Tangled vines climbed the walls and a blanket of pale flowers lined the floor. The room smelled sweet as honeysuckle. She broke into a laugh and leapt out of bed, scooping up handfuls of petals and tossing them into the air to fall like snow. The whole world seemed lit with a secret fire.
She had signed the Devil’s book last night, but it hadn’t been one of hate and horror. She’d signed it in kisses and good food and a soul free as a butterfly. When the witches next rode she’d go back up the mountain and do it again.
That afternoon she carried oats to the stable, a gaggle of beautiful tormentors chanting “Maggoty Meg” at her heels. The little devils were lobbing lumps of coal at her.
With a flick of her wrist Meg turned the coals to roses.
“Maggoty Meg Flies Up the Mountain”, © Jonathan Lenore Kastin. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores on Feb. 25, 2022
Jonathan Lenore Kastin (he/they) is a queer, trans poet with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poems can be found in Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit, Liminality, and Abyss & Apex. His short stories will also appear in two forthcoming anthologies: Ab(solutely) Normal (Candlewick, 2023) and Transmogrify! (HarperTeen, 2023). He lives with two mischievous cats, more books than he could ever read, and a frightening number of skulls. He is trying to write a novel. Pray for him.
illustration by Fran Eisemann, stock used from public domain