Anna’s pace was quick. It couldn’t have belonged to a 5-year-old girl.
A sense of perturbation swept across the air. The villagers all said she was an omen, as she didn’t look like she had grown up at all and maintained the appearance of a 5-year-old for all these years.
‘How about we rest for a while, alright Anna?’ I was panting like a bull.
She stopped walking, turned her head round, and looked at me with cold eyes. ‘Alright.’
We sat next to each other under a large tree. It was only then did I realise there was fog everywhere.
I instinctively shivered.
Why could Anna tell directions just by intuition?
Could she really be the devil of the forest that legend tells of?
‘You’re really familiar with this forest, Anna!’ I tried to sound her out. Legend says that nobody could make it out from the forest, all but Anna.
‘Mmhm. I stroll around here every day.’ Anna lowered her head and played with her shabby, old doll. Turned grey and covered in dust, it was made up of different rags and shared the same monotone colours as Anna’s clothing.
‘Why though? Doesn’t your mummy worry about you?’ I feigned my concern, my eyes never leaving Anna’s ginger hair and blue hair, which only she possessed among the whole village. I was pretty sure that Anna’s parents weren’t from the village.
‘Mummy never returned to the village after she had gone into the woods. But she promised me before she left. She promised me she would take her with me and leave the village by crossing the lake.’ Anna hugged her doll tightly, her face full of sorrow. ‘I waited day after night, but she never came. So I wandered into the woods to see if I can find the lake she had mentioned.’
‘Lake? Is that the lake I’m looking for?’ I was stunned.
I had been dreaming of my missing mother for seven days straight. My mother wanted me to get Anna to help out with finding the big lake in the middle of the woods so I could reunite with her. The villagers said that a devil had been impersonating my mother and wanted to steal my body from this. They urged me not to risk going into the forest, as well as not to contact Anna anymore.
‘I think so.’ Anna wasn’t too sure. ‘I’ve never seen that lake before.’
‘Didn’t you lead some villagers to find the lake?’ My blood ran cold. There were around 20 to 30 villagers who followed Anna into the woods, but they never came back.
‘Yeah. They did see the lake. But not me.’ Anna gave a bitter smile. ‘They all dreamt about the relatives they haven’t seen in years. But I’ve never dreamt about any relatives. Neither have the other villagers. That’s why they also can’t see the lake.’
Everything was far too creepy, which was hard to believe. No wonder the villagers said that Anna was a threat. They despised and feared her, bullying her several times so as to drive her away from the village. Some radical ones even threw Anna into a stove in the name of ‘casting evil spirits away’. Fortunately, Anna made it alive and crept out of the stove, hiding herself away in the forest to heal her wounds. Later on, she found some dirty rags and wrapped it around her body. That’s why the villagers teasingly referred to her as ‘Grey Anna’.
‘Don’t be afraid. Your mummy will definitely keep her promise.’ My heart grew of sympathy.
Anna finally smiled.
Overjoyed, she read me her favourite bedtime story. ‘Once upon a time, there was a girl named Cinderella. She had a step-mother, who had 2 daughters…’
After a few chitchats, Anna and I grew tired and fell asleep together under the large tree.
The next day, the fog vanished.
I tried to prop up my body and forced my heavy eyelids to stay open.
What? How come there’s a lake not far from us? How come we didn’t realise it for the whole night?
‘What’s wrong?’ Anna let out a yawn and looked at me sleepily.
‘Can’t you see it?’ I pointed at the lake.
‘Lake? I don’t see a lake!’ Anna sensed that I’d seen something, but looked askance at me. She sprinted towards the direction I was pointing at, until she reached the centre of the lake which I saw. Ripples didn’t appear near her steps. Finally, she steadily stood on the surface of the lake and didn’t sink into the water. It was as if she was walking on flat land.
I mustered up my courage, as I walked towards Anna tremblingly.
My shoes were already soaked by just a few steps. Besides, my feet could feel the icy-cold sensation of the water. ‘I can’t walk near you!’
‘You can just stand by the lake!’ She returned to my side. ‘See if there’s anything special nearby?’
I checked my surroundings.
Thick fog appeared suddenly, billowing the lake surface. Everything was trapped within the mist.
Ripples spread across the lake from its centre. An unmanned, run-down boat was coming our way and stopped at my feet. ‘A… boat…’ I was almost scared to death by the chilling atmosphere, and ended up stuttering.
‘That’s your boat! It will guide you the way to leave.’ Anna had explained, before she immediately turned around and left.
‘Anna!’ I cried out. ‘Are you leaving with me?’
‘I can’t see the lake or the boat. So I can’t leave!’ A smile hid away her disappointment.
I hastily took out a few sweets from my coat pocket and shoved them into her hands. ‘I only have these… I don’t have anything else to repay you.’
‘Maybe you could help me by asking around where Mummy is. And tell her that Anna misses her a lot!’ Anna cried while speaking about her mother. People said that she was a girl void of tears, not even revealing her vulnerability when being bullied repeatedly by the villagers.
Yet, she shed tears for her mother.
‘Alright…’ I petted her ginger hair gently so as to comfort her.
I got on the boat, and sailed towards the depths of the haziness.
Anna’s figure became more and more blurry…
I opened my eyes and I sprung up. Beside me were 2 unfamiliar ugly-looking old women. And also…
‘Dad? Mum?’ I cried tears of joy. Thrilled, Mum and Dad darted forwards with and wrapped me in a warm embrace.
After having a full meal, I rejoined my parents and the two women.
According to my parents, I had passed away due to a car accident a few days ago. Because of that, they found the witches to bring me back to life again. Now I had to stay here for one more night under observation. If everything went smoothly, then I could return home.
Night fell and my parents left the small house. The two witches and I sat next to the fire in our rocking chair while savouring tasty hot chocolate.
I brought up Anna and things about her, hoping that the witches could help to find her mother.
Silence filled the room.
Something was up; I could tell from their expressions. ‘Do you know Anna?’
They didn’t answer me, but instead talked about their own stories on their own…
It was 70 years ago, and the civil war had just ended. People had to face the plague and famine again.
Two toddlers, less than 10 years old, followed their witch mother as they roved the streets. Later on, they were adopted by a woodcutter. To return him the favour, the witch married the woodcutter and took care of their child—Anna. Unfortunately, the woodcutter died from the plague, leaving the witch behind to look after their three daughters.
The four of them had neither enough food nor clothes. At the same time the witch was worrying about how to feed the family, she found out that the millionaire in the village was willing to hire anybody who knew witchcraft, hoping to resurrect his beloved wife. Turning the offer over in her mind, the witch decided to go for it. She exploited Anna, who didn’t know what was happening, and used her as a medium to guide his beloved wife…
‘Why weren’t you two chosen as the “medium”, but Anna who knew nothing about witchcraft?’
‘Would there be any mother who would be willing to risk her child?’
‘After the deed had been done, why didn’t she bring Anna back?’
‘Because the money was stolen. We had to play the same old trick and used her to make a living…’
‘And then what? You were robbed again? Aren’t you having a life of ease? See? You’ve got hot chocolate! A fireplace! Rocking chairs! But Anna was bullied everyday! She was even tossed into a stove!’
‘It’s too late! Anna’s body had long been decomposed. She can’t come back to life.’
‘Well then at least you have to go and apologise to her. That’ll stop her from waiting blindly and start a normal life again.’
‘We… We dare not… We’re scared that she’ll fly into such a fit of rage that her powers might grow too strong. She’ll turn into a vengeful spirit and seek revenge against us…’
‘She has a kind heart. Maybe she’ll forgive you.’
‘Who can guarantee that?’
It was true. Nobody could guarantee Anna wouldn’t be enraged.
Seeing that I didn’t answer back, the witches passed the buck to me with their tongues, one after another.
‘How about this? You kill yourself and tell Anna the truth, then persuade her to lead a normal life.’
‘But we aren’t sure whether Anna would be willing to guide you once more.’
‘Hopefully Anna won’t tear you into shreds!’
‘Why are you pretending to be all high and noble? You don’t have the guts either!’
I was so livid that I threw the thermos cup I had been holding into the fire, and threw the rocking chair down. Unexpectedly, the witches were so amused by my outrageous actions that they laughed until they arched their backs.
‘Are you angry because you’re embarrassed of yourself? Haha!’
‘Your parents spent a fortune just to save you, you little brat!’
‘The world is never strictly black and white!’
‘You’ll get it soon, kiddo!’
I knew I had been completely defeated.
Not only was I defeated by the witches, but more importantly, I was defeated by myself.
I wasn’t as much of a good-two-shoes as I thought I had been.
So… I’m sorry, Anna.