Tally May was in the wood collecting pine cones when the children spotted her.
There were always some curious ones, but they'd been coming by more and more often lately to steal a glance at the local witch. Supposedly, there was a rumor floating around that she could turn into a mountain lion at will and the children were trying to spot her change. Tally May was more than happy to let the rumors float. Every once in a while, when she knew the kids were watching, she'd hack like she was coughing up a fur ball.
Before she turned to these children, Tally May took a couple minutes to think up a really good retort that would send them all running. Then, she whirled around, the mourning dove feathers in her hair rustling as she stepped.
"Perhaps you're so noisy, I should turn you all into cicadas," she cried, practically shouting the last word and taking pleasure as the gaggle of children ran screaming.
All in the name of good fun.
But when she blinked the sunlight out of her eyes, she realized not all the children had run away screaming. A boy and a girl stood, how young she had no idea. She was no good with ages anymore; they were all younger than her. It seemed to Tally May that the boy would probably be gone as well if he didn't have the girl's skirts to clutch.
"I wouldn't make a very good cicada," the girl said.
Tally May sighed. "Why not? It seems like you have a lot to say."
The girl crossed her arms over her bright green overalls. "That's right. I do. And no one would be able to understand me if I was a cicada."
Tally May really couldn't argue with such logic.
"What are you always doing out in the woods?" the girl demanded.
"Well, today I'm collecting pine cones."
Tally May bent over to pick up another pine cone and dropped it in her sack. "Did you know that if you put your ear
up to certain pine cones, you can hear the forest, just like you can hear the ocean in certain shells?"
The girl's big brown eyes narrowed. "That's not true."
"How do you know? Have you ever tried to listen to a pine cone?" Tally May held one out for the girl.
The child studied the witch for a moment, then stepped forward warily, the boy still clinging to her dress.
Tally May smiled while the girl put the pine cone up to her ear. At first, the child watched her with skepticism. Then her face slowly melted into surprise, then wonder. There was nothing better than the first time someone heard the forest sounds. The hum of insects, the rustle of the branches in wind, the scuffling of boars or rodents, the quiet flick of leaves falling on the forest floor, the whispers of the trees stretching. And they said she was the one who made magic.
The girl held out the pine cone for the little boy to listen to. "You said only certain pine cones make the forest sound. How can you tell?"
Tally May swatted a mosquito out of her ear. "You have to look for the glow."
The little girl raised an eyebrow.
Tally May beckoned her forward and reached into her sack. The witch used her thumbs to pry back the pine cone's scales until she and the children could see a faint green glow inside. The girl gasped in awe. She was going to find her own glowing pine cones all on her own, she said. When the girl asked what Tally May did with the pine cones she collected, the witch told her about a wonderful spell that could heal the forest, breathe life into dying things.
She didn't tell the girl she liked the look of the pine cones lined up on her window sill, or that their gentle forest sounds lulled her to sleep at night.
"But sometimes," the witch did say to the girl, "these pine cones call out to be dropped in a very special place so their tree can grow there, so I carry the seeds there because I have legs, but pine cones and trees do not."