Lynn lived alone. This had several advantages: she could smoke wherever she wanted, she could stretch out in the bed and have the blankets all to herself, she could eat, bathe and listen to music according to her fancies alone and she could practice the black arts without anyone interfering, trying to save her soul, or, worst of all, showing a polite interest.

Lynn lived alone, so she was surprised to hear a noise coming from her kitchen that morning. She walked in, naked– it was her cottage and they were the burglars, so they could bloody well just get used to it– when she realised the noise was the doorbell. She wasn’t sure if she’d ever heard it ringing before. Had anyone ever visited her?

She decided this merited a change of plans, went back to her bedroom and threw on some clothes. She then went and opened the front door. Outside stood her sister, and the only child Lynn could even barely tolerate; “Alice!” She cooed in what she hoped was a welcoming voice.

“Lynn, I need a favour,” Lynn’s sister, Zoe, said.

Lynn looked from her sister to her niece and back again. Then it dawned on her. She had heard about this possibility when she’d told her friends in the coven that her sister was pregnant– apparently it was known as “babysitting.” She’d understood that it was more dangerous than an ill-fortune cantrip or a demon-binding ritual. “Oh, no, I can’t, Zoe, I absolutely can’t.”

“Please, I’m desperate.”

Today was the day that Lynn had been hoping to try out her transmutation spell; she needed absolute peace and quiet if she wasn’t to turn the walls to water. “No, Zoe, really, it’s just not possible.”

Zoe made a small nudging motion with her hand against the back of her daughter’s head and rather mechanically Alice said, “Please, Auntie Lynn.”

Lynn had never wanted children and, indeed, never would– but she had a soft spot for Alice, with her unruly jet-black hair and complete inability to hide her emotions. Zoe knew nothing of Lynn’s occult practices, and Lynn would really rather keep it that way, but she guessed she could put off the transmutation spell for just an afternoon. “Two hours: no more.”

“Oh God, you’re a lifesaver,” Zoe deflated with gratitude. She turned and kissed her daughter on the forehead and then was off down the garden path towards the gate, “Back by-” but the low, resonant wail of the gate hinges saved her from lying about when she intended to be back.

Lynn turned to look at Alice– the spitting image of her grandmother, down to the natural pursing of the lips when the face was supposedly in neutral. “Hungry?”

The little girl nodded and Lynn led her inside. In the kitchen, she realised that there was a problem– Lynn mainly consisted on a diet of gin and nicotine, with the occasional supplement of marzipan thrown in, for the vitamins. She threw open the cupboard, hoping to find an old forgotten packet of apricots, or at least some lentils for her niece to snack on. It was damningly empty.

 

She turned back around to her niece to find her trying, quite industriously, to open the massive gas oven. Lynn swooped Alice up into her arms and dragged her clawing and pining away from the stove. Lynn plonked her down on the floor and knelt down to look her in the eyes, “Alice, sweetie, listen to me, this is very important: never– and I mean never ever, ever– climb into an oven, okay? They are very, very dangerous.”

Alice stared at the floor, either out of shame or anger.

“Alice, are you listening to me?”

“Yes.”

“So, what did I say?”

“Ovens are dangerous.” She repeated petulantly.

“Exactly, now come on,” Lynn took her niece’s hand and lead her back into the kitchen, “I have an idea.”

Lynn gathered up every cup, plate, bowl and flowerpot that she had ever used as an ashtray and tipped their contents onto the table. Then she took a stick of chalk from her pocket and drew a rough circle around the pile of grey soot.

“What are you doing?” Alice asked.

“Something very secret– so you absolutely cannot tell mummy, okay?”

“Okay.”

“And take your thumb out of your mouth.”

“Yes,” said Alice through her thumb.

Lynn knew she shouldn’t do this– Alice would undoubtedly tell her mother exactly what they’d done the moment she saw her– but if a four-year-old told you that her auntie had made food out of dust then you’d just think that you’d done some baking. And besides, this way, she got to practice her new spell and teach her niece about self-reliance and the usefulness of productivity. She drew a different rune at four equidistant points of the circle and then raised her hands.

“Watch now, you’ll like this part.” Lynn spoke the magic words and then clapped her hands together over her head. The ash began to rise into the air; each individual particle levitated up, in a mad attempt to escape from its siblings, rising higher and higher, but always staying within the chalk circle.

“Wow,” said Alice, her mouth agape in amazement.

Then, when the topmost flecks had almost reached the ceiling, they suddenly collapsed back down, crashing down through the air, colliding into the pieces below and bringing them down with them, until the entire pile hit onto the tabletop once again, sending up a grey cloud that obscured the centre of the circle.

Alice flinched, expecting some of the dust to hit her in the face, but still the ash remained within its chalk enclosure. And when the flecks settled back down onto the table, in the centre lay a pile of gingerbread men. There was no ash on them– indeed, the few remaining bits had landed far away from the confections, hedging themselves to the edge of the circle, as though afraid of the little biscuit figures.

Alice’s face lit up and she reached greedily into the pile and grabbed as many gingerbread men as she could carry. “I like to bite off the heads!” She exclaimed and merrily began to decapitate her snack-time victims with her teeth.

Lynn smiled at her niece’s delight. “Alice, look what else I can do,” she waved her hand and the remaining gingerbread men sprang up and stood on the round stumps that constituted their legs. Alice dropped her current captives in amazement, her eyes wide with astonishment. Lynn flicked her fingers and the gingerbread men began to walk, their movements exaggerated but fluid, and formed two lines, one facing the other; Lynn swirled her index finger, and a waltz began. In perfect time, moving to inaudible music, the gingerbread men took one another in their arms and began to dance around the table, twirling each other, splitting apart and then re-meeting, with none ever missing a beat.

Alice’s face was lit with an indescribable ecstasy– she had never seen anything like this in her life. The waltz continued, and one dancing pair swung very close to the girl, when she suddenly swept them up in her hand and, as they were still moving, still trying to follow the dance moves even as they were being carried away, she shoved their heads into her mouth and bit down.

They stopped moving immediately. On the table, the biscuit people all fell to the floor, no longer animate, as though mourning their fallen colleagues with their stillness.

Alice grinned, immune to the shock she had just caused to her aunt. It was true that the gingerbread men weren’t alive– that was a trick Lynn would never want to learn– but she couldn’t shake the horrible feeling that her niece hadn’t known that when she’d bitten down.

“I want to try!” Alice yelled. “I want to try making gingerbread!”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea, Alice, your mother wouldn’t like it.”

“Please!” Alice cried, bearing her teeth where the remains of her prey still clung. And, even though a voice protested in her head that this was a very bad idea and a feeling in her heart told her that this was the start of something dark and terrible, Lynn agreed. She thought she could sense power in Alice– there was an aura about her of control and magnetism– and she was curious to see if she was right.

Under the pretence of making more ash for Alice she had a quick cigarette and let the flakes fall into the middle of the table. She then brought her niece back into the room and handed her the magic chalk– however bright Alice might have been, the ability to draw a circle eluded her. The wavy, arbitrary ellipsoid she made brought to mind spilled soup or perhaps a smushed apple. Her copies of the runes were sloppy, but a lot better than Lynn was expecting; but the real surprise was her pitch perfect pronunciation of the spell. Lynn raised her hands and bid Alice to copy her, then carefully and precisely over articulated the magic words– she’d seen far too many examples of what happened to those who were sloppy with their enunciation during casting– and Alice, with an ease, grace, quickness and elegance that belied an innate understanding of the unknown language she was speaking, reproduced them perfectly and then smashed her hands together over her head.

The lights went out. The windows cracked and the roof groaned. The beams creaked and the pipes shuddered. Alice jumped into her aunt’s arms and curled upon herself, hiding her head.

The walls were made of gingerbread.

Lynn laughed-–it was incredible. This little girl, this tiny little slip of a thing that she held in her arms– she could weigh no more than a cat– had managed to transmute mortar and brick into sugar and spice. It was amazing. It was terrifying. If Lynn had thought about it, concentrated and tried, she could probably have achieved this effect– but Alice hadn’t had to try. She had done it without thinking– without even meaning to, she’d displayed a level of occult prowess that Lynn hadn’t accomplished until her early twenties. She was an Adept.

Lynn lowered Alice into a chair and stroked her hair. “It’s ok, it’s ok. There’s nothing to be frightened of. It’s fine– look.”

Alice peeped out from under her arm as her aunt tried desperately to remember the words to undo magic. She waved her hand and, while simultaneously concentrating immensely and trying to make it seem like it was nothing at all, she chanted the words under her breath, partly so Alice wouldn’t hear them. Hesitantly, the walls returned to their usual cream facade. Alice lifted her head and looked around.

“I’m sorry, Auntie Lynn.”

“Don’t ever apologise for talent, Alice. You have a very powerful gift, and you should be proud of that.”

Despite these words, and against Alice’s protestations, Lynn declined to do anymore magic that afternoon, instead reading to her niece from a book of fairytales that Zoe had particularly enjoyed when they were little. Alice seemed especially taken with Babes in the Wood, enthralled with the idea of the lost children, parentless and in a seemingly endless forest. Lynn chalked this up to the novelty of the idea of independence from adults for the young girl, rather than malice.

When Zoe returned, much, much later, she found her daughter happily sat upon Lynn’s lap. She jumped up when she saw her mother and started saying a lot of nonsense about dancing biscuits and magic walls. Zoe thanked her sister and then led Alice out of the cottage, down the garden path and through her gate.

“Mummy, I know what I’m going to do when I grow up,” Alice announced proudly as though this was a proclamation long in the making that the world had been waiting for.

“Oh, and what’s that?”

“I’m going to live in a cottage, just like Auntie Lynn.”

Zoe smiled, “Well, that sounds lovely. I hope I can come and visit.”

“No,” Alice said forcefully and stopped walking. “It’s just going to be me and the children in the wood. No one else.”

“What children in the wood?”

“The babies. The ones in the story.”

“And why would they want to come to your house?” Zoe asked, feeling she had lost the thread of what her daughter was talking about.

At this, Alice began to walk again and smiled knowingly.”Because it’ll be made of gingerbread.”

 

 

Rory Kelly