"Why do you sigh so deeply?" he asked his wife.
"Because we have no son to carry on in the smithy when you grow old and weak, and we have no daughter to clean and cook for us when I grow weary," said the woman.
The man thought for a moment, and said, "I will go into the deep forest and visit the witch who lives there. Perhaps she can help us."
The woman had heard tales of the witch, and was afraid. She begged him not to go, and so he stayed.
But in another month, the man heard her sighing as she stood in the kitchen, and again as she dug in the garden, and again as she collected eggs from the hens. He said nothing, but quietly prepared a bundle of food to take with him.
In the morning, the man left the house, telling his wife that he needed to buy a new bellows and would visit a carpenter in a distant village. She bade him take care, and he started off down the road. Once he was out of sight of the cottage, he turned and walked into the forest.
After a day and a night of searching, the man found the witch's house. It was made all of bread, with a roof of cake and windows of clear sugar. Although the man was hungry, having run out of the food in his bundle, he knew not to eat from the house, as the townsfolk said it was a trap. Instead, he knocked on the door.
After a minute, a voice came from inside. "What do you want, knocking at my door and disturbing my rest? I am just an old woman. Leave me in peace."
But the man said, "Come, good witch, I would make a bargain with you."
The door opened, and the crone peered out at him. " What bargain would you make with me? You are nothing but a blacksmith." Still, she left the door open, curious to hear his offer.
"With your house made of treats, I am sure you are very fond of children, but you live deep in the forest where few children pass by. You must be very lonely."
The witch looked at him sharply, but answered, "It is true. I have not seen a child for many a day."
The blacksmith went on, "Some distance through these woods, there is a village with many children, but it is cut off by a deep stream which keeps the people and the children from the woods." He paused. "I could make a bridge over the stream, so that the people and their children could cross and come into the forest."
The witch frowned. "What use would that be to me? The children would cross and return and would not visit my house."
"Ah," said the blacksmith, "but I would build a gate on the bridge. From the village side, the latch would be easy to open for anyone, but from the forest side, only a tall grown man or woman could reach the latch. Without doubt, sometimes a child would wander through in search of flowers or berries, and be unable to return."
The witch smiled wickedly, and it made the blacksmith's heart nearly stop. "Then the child would grow hungry and wander in the woods to my little house." She looked closely at the blacksmith, and asked, "What would you get from your side of the bargain? Why would you help a witch like me?"
The blacksmith explained that he and his wife were childless. "In exchange for my building the bridge and the gate, you would find a strong boy and a hard working girl to be our children."
The witch agreed, and the man set off to build the bridge and the gate. When he finished, he returned to his wife, but did not tell her what he had done. Every day, he watched the forest to see if the witch had kept her promise.
Deep in the forest, the witch heard a scratching and nibbling sound. Though she had grown quite fat from the three children she had eaten already, she was greedy and called out to them.
Nibble, nibble, little mouse,
Who is nibbling at my house?
She listened, and from outside the house she heard a boy and a girl, and they called back.
Not a mouse, but little birds
who stop to listen at your words.
The nibbling sounds went on, and she opened the door. Standing in front of her was a strong boy with curly blond hair, and a sturdy girl with clear blue eyes.
The witch thought of the blacksmith, and her promise to him, but even with her very weak eyes, these two children looked too tasty to send away. I will send him another boy and girl and keep these two for myself , she thought.
"Dear children, you look so hungry. Come in, as there are more treats inside."
Hearing this, the boy and the girl followed her into the house, but she promptly tricked the boy into a cage. The girl wept piteously, but the witch laughed at her and told her they must fatten up the boy so that the witch could eat him.
The girl was forced to make the fire and take good food to the boy in his cage, while she had only scraps to eat. The witch watched her closely to make sure she didn't unlock the cage and set the boy free. Each day, the witch asked the boy to stick out a finger so she could feel if he was fat enough to eat, but he never seemed any fatter.
One day, the witch decided she would eat the boy, no matter how thin he was. She told the girl to light the giant oven and fetch a large pile of sticks to keep it burning hot. When it had burned for a while, the witch ordered the girl to check the heat in the oven.
The girl said that she did not know how to check the oven, and the witch screeched at her, but finally opened the large oven door and leaned in to feel the heat herself. It felt just right for cooking the boy. She started to back out, but the girl shoved her, and the witch tumbled into the fiery oven. The door clanged shut behind her, and she slowly sizzled to death.
The girl ran and unlocked the boy's cage. They rejoiced and danced around the room together. At last the boy said that they ought to return home, but the girl looked sad. "Will they even want us back? They left us in the woods to die."
Somber, the boy and girl walked through the woods, searching for the edge. At last they came upon a wide stream. In the distance, they could see a village, and they ran across the bridge, but there was a gate with a latch much too high to be reached.
"We will starve in these woods, or be eaten by wild beasts," the girl said, and she sat upon the ground and wept.
The boy took her hand and said, "Come, let us see if there is another bridge or a ferryman further down the stream."
They walked along for almost an hour, when they came upon a duck, swimming near the banks. The girl sang out to him.
Come, pretty duckling, come give us a ride
Help us cross the stream and reach the other side.
At first the duck hesitated, but then it swam over to the edge of the stream. The boy wanted them both to ride at once, but the girl said they were too big, so they took turns riding on the graceful duck's back. When they were both safely on the far side of the stream, the girl sang out again to the duck.
Thank you kindly, duckling, for giving us a ride.
Now we are safe and sound and on the other side.
As the boy and girl turned toward away from the stream, they spied the edge of the forest. They ran out and into a field. Nearby, they saw a cottage with a man standing, looking at them.
The blacksmith, for it was he, welcomed them and invited them in to meet his wife. "Where do you come from?" she asked. "Where are your parents?"
The boy looked around the comfortable cottage with no sign of any children. He looked at the welcoming smiles of the blacksmith and his wife, and remembered the cruel way their own parents had left them in the woods. He had an idea, and said, "The witch sent us to you to be your very own son and daughter."
The woman cried and the man cried, and they all hugged and danced about the room together.
The little birds have found a home
and nevermore to woods will roam.
Ben Langhinrichs is a software designer living in Shaker Heights, Ohio with his lovely wife, two cats, and one of three children still at home. He has had stories published or accepted in many magazines and anthologies, most recently several published by Pill Hill Press and the Library of Science Fiction and Fantasy.