Twisted Fairy Tale: The Forest of the Bruja by Sandra Proudman
Welcome to the 8th annual #SpookyShowcase! The Spooky Showcase celebrates the dark minds of creatives around the world through short stories and artistic creations that are dark in nature, macabre, or horror themed.
This year’s theme is Twisted Fairy Tales. Expect twisted legends, creepy creations, and dark fairy tales that will keep you up at night. Visit each day in the month of October for a scare. The master schedule is here.
The Forest of the Bruja
by Sandra Proudman
There were once twin sisters—Reyna and Marisol Cruz. Both had dark brown hair. Brown skin. Both had trouble rolling their R’s. They braided their long hair the same; a braid at each side of their soft cheeks. They were so alike in the way they spoke and moved that even their parents had trouble telling them apart.
The sisters enjoyed playing at the edge of town, where they could be alone. There, no one would bother them and that’s where their differences came to life. Reyna’s curiosity on how the world worked and what was beyond the forest. Marisol’s devotion to the town, their parents, and the boy with a heart-shaped birth mark on his cheek. The edge, where the forest began and seemed to constantly be reaching out to them. But they could not venture in. The sisters did not live in an ordinary place. Their town was circular in shape and surrounded by forest on all sides. A magical forest, or so the sisters were taught. They were not allowed to go into the forest, so they never truly knew what was there, just beyond the cusp of trees. For everyone who went in never returned to tell their tale.
It had been this way for a hundred years. Perhaps longer. No one in town was sure anymore.
On this particular day, Reyna whispered in Marisol’s ear, “I dare you, hermana, to go into the forest.”
Marisol shook her head, her braids twirling in her face as she did. “Mama and Papa said we can’t.”
“Mama and Papa have never set un pie in the forest,” Reyna with a shrug. “How do they know what’s in there? How does anyone?”
Marisol tilted her head, eyes drawn to the trees. The aspens lining the edge of the forest, were turning. Their leaves were yellowing. It would snow soon. Be so cold. Marisol hated winters. They wouldn’t go out much during winter. Better to see all they could see now. “Fine. I’ll go,” Marisol said lowly, always wanting to be the braver of the two sisters. “If you come with me. I dare you to follow me into the forest.”
Reyna would never dare say no to Marisol. For they hadn’t been separated for more than a few hours all of their lifetime. Where Marisol went. Reyna followed. And vice versa. That’s the way it’d always been.
The sixteen-year-old’s didn’t pack, didn’t take with them any food as they ventured past the aspen trees, deep into the shadows. Marisol only look back once to see if anyone noticed them slip into the forest. But there was no one around.
The forest, they found, was not menacing the way Mama and Papa had told them it was. As they slipped further in, they found it was enchanting. They fell in love with the trees, their bark brown like their skin, their branches magnificent and long. They fell in love with the way the sun shone through the canopy and was warm on their faces. They fell in love with the ferns and the mushrooms that grew near their feet. They fell in love with how quiet it was except for the birds that sung sweet songs from the trees.
Marisol took off her shoes, the crunch of fall leaves below her feet. She loved the feel of the soil, and suddenly found herself not missing her town, Mama, or even Papa, who often read her stories of hadas in the woods.
“You’re going to get a twig stuck in your foot,” Reyna said, rolling her eyes at her sister. “And then I’ll have to carry you home.”
“I’d love that, actually. Can you carry me, anyway?”
Reyna gave Marisol a small shove with her hip in reply as she twirled a yellow aspen tree leaf in between her fingers. Reyna was staring at the leaf when it started to bleed, as if it were made of skin, and the skin had been cut. Reyna let go of the leaf, her fingers still coated in sticky red blood. She quickly wiped the blood away on her dress. She was about to tell Marisol they should go back to town when they were interrupted by a terrible cry.
“There!” Marisol said, pointing further into the forest where the sound was coming from.
Up ahead, in a clearing, there was a woman perhaps twice their age, chained up to a tree. To Reyna she was the most beautiful woman in the world. To Marisol she looked tattered and weak and like she desperately needed help.
The woman stilled as Marisol stepped into the clearing to help her. Turning to her first, the woman cried out in pain and said, “Child, por favor, I need your help. I have been left for dead in my old age and no one is coming to rescue me. I’m afraid I will quickly starve. Ayudame before I do and I will grant you one wish.”
Then the woman turned to Reyna, who was more reluctant. To her, the woman smiled sweetly and said, “Child, por favor, I need your help. Men came and took me from my home because I am beautiful and now they’ve left me here. But they’ll come back. Ayudame before they return and I will grant you one wish.”
The sisters turned to each other, neither aware that what they were seeing were two completely different things. They ran to the woman, together freeing her of the chains, which gave out with three simple tugs, loosening and falling to the woman’s feet.
There was a bright light that blinded the sisters then, as the woman seemed to transform before their very eyes. Her clothing changed—she wore a burgundy dress, long sleeves and a long velvet tail behind her, and there were now ruby jewels in her hair. She had a wand, a ruby the size of a blackberry adorning the top of it. Her face had changed as well, to both of the girls. Her skin was flawless. Young. Young like them suddenly. She could be their sister, too. She looked exactly like them.
Reyna took a step back. Marisol a step forward, and would have taken another had her sister’s hand not interwoven with her own that very instant, pulling her back and away.
“I am a bruja of my word,” the bruja began, “I will grant you both a wish. What will it be, mis hemelas?”
Marisol didn’t need to think what she would wish for. She’d often tried to do spells of her own, but she did not have powers. She wasn’t a bruja, but she yearned to be one. “I wish to be a bruja, just like you.”
The bruja nodded, turning next to Reyna.
“I wish to be rich,” Reyna said, an edge of a question to her voice.
The bruja nodded again and began to speak. She said an enchantment, turning to Reyna first. “Run home,” she said to the sister. “There will be a chest waiting for you. It will fill with gold every night. And when you awake, you will be as rich as you were the first day.”
But Reyna didn’t run home; she waited for Marisol.
The bruja turned to Marisol next. Marisol stood, proud and ready to receive the gift of the brujx. But when the bruja began her incantation, Marisol found that her bones twisted and grew tired. That her body felt weighed down. Suddenly, she found herself chained up to the tree, her hands as withered away as the bruja’s had been before they set her free.
“Hermana!” Reyna said, running to her sister and tugging at the chains. This time, they didn’t give. She turned to the bruja.
“What have you done to me?” Marisol asked.
“I granted your wish,” the bruja said with a simple shrug. “To be a bruja just like me.”
“This isn’t what I meant!” Marisol said, now close to tears, her voice soft and waned. She would starve, if she was left here. She would wither away even more and she would die stuck to this tree instead of spending the rest of her life with her sister.
Reyna attempted to break the chains, but she couldn’t. Not alone. “Please, I’ll do anything,” the sister pled. “Just free her. I’ll give you back the money.”
The bruja grinned then. “I don’t have any use for money. Money might buy you many things, but it does not buy you an eternity. You say, you will do anything. Well, let’s put that to the test. If you do these three things, I will set your sister free. I promise, and my word is my bond, so know I’ll be forced to keep it.”
“What do you want me to do?” Reyna asked, holding Marisol’s hand. She would not leave her sister to die here. Not for all the money in the world.
“Bring me three hearts—the heart of a tree burned by greed; the still-beating heart of a cat dark as night, meaning unharmed and alive; and the heart of a man you steal yourself.”
Reyna was taken aback. She wanted to run away. She couldn’t. Running meant Marisol would surely die. Marisol looked up at her sister, waiting for her answer, two silver braids leaning against her wrinkled cheeks. Reyna only had one choice. She kissed Marisol’s forehead before turning to the bruja and saying, “Okay, I’ll bring you the hearts.”
Before the bruja could say anything that might sound like an objection, Reyna ran. She ran through the forest, following the footsteps they’d made on the way in. The forest around her turned dark, even though it was the middle of the day. Roots arose from the soil, so every other step she took, she almost tripped. Still, she ran. She ran when birds appeared out of nowhere and cut up her arms with their talons and beaks. She ran when it started to rain and the rain seemed to burn at her skin.
She didn’t know what to do about the tree or the man. But she did know where to find a black cat. It was where she thought it would be—next to the butcher shop where it often waited for the small scraps of meat the butcher loved to feed the cat. Reyna jumped on it, without hesitation, catching the cat off guard. The cat tried to go right, then tried to go left, only to end up in Reyna’s arms. It scratched at her. Still, she took the cat home and into her room, where she shut the door. Inside, there was the chest the bruja had promised her. She opened it, the cat in one hand. It was filled to the brim with gold coins. She was rich. But all the riches in the world wouldn’t save her sister. She had to do that now.
A knock came at the door just as Reyna was trying to figure out how to carry the cat to the bruja and where she would find the other hearts that she needed to save Marisol.
“Hola? Marisol?” the voice on the other side of the door asked. It was Samuel. The boy who she knew Marisol was in love with. Reyna froze, trying to figure out what to do.
There was nobody else home. Mama and Papa were at work. They wouldn’t be home for hours. She only had till nightfall to do what the bruja wanted and get Marisol back or Mama and Papa and the whole town would know what she did.
Samuel knocked again. He wasn’t going to go away. Perhaps Marisol had even asked him to come. He might try and wait for her. Reyna closed her eyes and shook her head; she had to figure everything out fast. She would have to open the door. She took the cat in her hands, trying to make sure it didn’t escape.
“Shhh,” she said to the cat. “You’re okay. Te lo prometo.”
She opened the door. The moment she did, the cat clawed at her hands. The cat’s claws dug into her skin, made her bleed. But she couldn’t let him go. Her cheeks flushed, hot with embarrassment and pain.
“Are you all right?” Samuel asked, eying Reyna up and down. His eyes landed on the cat.
“Estoy bien,” Reyna said. “Marisol isn’t here.”
“I can wait for her—”
“No.” Reyna moved to close the door, mumbling to herself. “A cat as black as night. Now all I need is the heart of a tree burned by greed—”
“A tree burnt by greed?” Samuel asked, stopping the door. She turned back to him. She avoided making eye contact. “I know just the one.”
She lifted her gaze then. Their eyes met. He was beautiful. Dark brown skin and big eyes. She hated thinking that he was. “What did you say?”
“A tree burnt by greed. There’s one in my backyard.”
“Show me,” Reyna beckoned, getting so close to Samuel she could kiss him if she wanted to. She’d thought about it. Just as much as Marisol had. But Reyna would never admit it. Would never tell her sister.
Samuel blushed. “Okay,” he said and led the way, taking the black cat from Reyna. In his hands, the cat didn’t fight. Reyna took that as a good sign.
Soon, the pair was standing in front of the tree. Reyna couldn’t tell what type of tree it had been. Its branches were scorched, bent in awkward ways. Its bark was black and ashen.
“My grandfather’s brother burned the entire house down because he was trying to kill my grandfather out of greed. He succeeded. This tree is the only thing that survived the night.”
Reyna nodded, eyes staring at the tree, trying to figure out—“Where is it’s heart?”
“At its center, I guess.”
Reyna approached the tree. She turned to Samuel. “Do you have something to cut into it with? To dig the heart out?”
Samuel left, but returned minutes later with some tools for cutting into the tree. Reyna took them. “Gracias,” she said as she began to dig with a pick, she dug and dug and dug, until her hands were splintered, and she was no longer using the pick but ripping into the center of the tree with her bare hands. Only, when she got to the middle, all she had was more blood smeared on her fingers. It seemed like all she was capable of today was making a bloody mess.
“There’s no heart,” she said, close to tears.
“What about este?” Samuel said, his eyes wide. When she turned to him there was alarm in his gaze. Questions lingering there he didn’t quiet dare ask. He was pointing at a spot in the tree, just to Reyna’s left, where someone had etched a heart into the bark. There were two initials inside of the heart, though Reyna didn’t recognize them.
She dug it out then, careful not to split the heart in two. When she was done, she grinned and set the heart in her pocket. She had a cat as dark as night, and the heart of a tree burned by greed.
She only had one more heart to take and Marisol would be freed.
“Are you okay?” Samuel asked again. He brushed his fingers gently down her arm with a free hand, the cat in the other, resting against his hip. The sensation of his touch sent a rush of air into Reyna, who wanted nothing more but to kiss Samuel. He seemed to understand this then. He leaned in. Closer and closer. And soon their lips were connecting.
Reyna pulled back after a minute. “What about Marisol?” she asked, her head spinning with guilt.
“I admit, I loved your sister,” he replied, “but you have stolen my heart today.”
The heart. She remembered then. What the bruja had asked for. The heart of a man—or perhaps a boy—who you have stolen. Reyna knew what she had to do.
“Can I have a glass of water?” Reyna asked Samuel, her words unsteady. She took the cat from him. This time, the cat settled with her.
“Of course.” He kissed her again and went off toward the house. Reyna did not hesitate. She bent, taking hold of a rock sitting by the tree. She raised it in the air, and hit Samuel in the back of the head with it.
He fell. She cried. And that’s when she saw it. As she bent to try and figure out how to take his heart right from his chest. There it was. His heart shaped birthmark. Right there on his cheek. She didn’t have to kill Samuel. She only had to steal his heart.
She ran into the kitchen then, careful not to get caught, and pulled out a small butcher knife. She ran back to Samuel, knelt, and didn’t hesitate to start to cut away a part of his cheek. He bled. A lot more than Reyna anticipated. Her hands were soon soaked red. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to wash them free of all the red.
Samuel woke up then, with a stir and pulled away. “Please!” Reyna said, tears in her eyes. “I need to save Marisol!”
He stilled then, grunting out in pain. “Que? What are you talking about?”
“Give me your heart.” She didn’t wait for him to answer, she took the skin in her fingertips and pulled it loose from his face.
He yelled. And she ran. Hugging the cat to her chest. She ran and ran and ran. That’s all she was made out of today. Blood and running. She headed into the forest. Through the trees. Not caring who saw her go in. All she cared about was what she was going to come home with.
The bruja was where she had left her. Marisol, too.
“Here!” Reyna said. “I have your hearts.”
She pulled them all out and held them out to the bruja to inspect.
The bruja side-grinned then. “Muy bien.” The bruja took two of the items. Ate the heart of the tree and the heart of the boy. She took the cat next. The cat purred, rubbed against the bruja. “I’ve missed you, mi gatito,” the bruja said to the cat, as if she recognized it.
She closed her eyes and seemed to glow then.
Marisol turned young again. Her silver hair returned to brown. Her wrinkly face smoothed out. The chains broke, and settled at her feet. She ran to Reyna and hugged her tight. Though Reyna could not look her sister in the face. Not after everything she’d done to save her.
The bruja vanished then, taking the black cat with her.
“Hermana,” Marisol said, voice shaking. “Let’s never come into the forest again.”
And they didn’t. They walked back, hand in hand, through the forest, past the aspen trees, back to town. Town, where people waited for answers.
Town, where Samuel was being tended to and questioned.
Town, where they had set up where they would burn the sisters for being brujas. Side by side. After burning down their house.
Town, where the gold would stay untouched, underneath the ash. For a decade. Then ten. Then a thousand years. After everyone in the town had withered and passed. The gold was there, useless, as the bruja roamed the forest, waiting for someone else to come to her, so she could send them on a quest for the items she needed for the spell that extended her life. Her black cat, one as dark as night, following behind her.
About the Author
Sandra Proudman writes young adult and middle grade stories with unabashed Latinx protagonists. She lives in California with her awesome husband and hanging-on-by-a-thread houseplants.
In the time of COVID, when she’s not at her day job (where she’s a graphic designer and marketing coordinator), you can find her baking banana bread, on zoom with writer friends, and working on home improvements.
Connie B. Dowell
Ooh. This was delightfully creepy. Well done, Sandra.
I LOVED this (and am very glad the black cat survived xD). Great job, Sandra!