Last month I wrote about witch maidens and how much I love them. This Bohemian story from Ruth Manning-Sanders’1986 edition of A Book of Witches was the gateway drug.
It’s technically about Johnny, an orphan boy who is travelling in search of employment. In time he comes to a forest. On the outskirts of the forest is a little house; in the house lives an old man with empty spaces where his eyes ought to be, and on the hill above the forest live the witch maidens who took his eyes away.
Johnny is given the job of taking the old man’s goats out to pasture and bringing them back again. The old man is a kindly employer, giving Johnny only one rule to follow: he must not take the goats to the hill above the forest, for if Johnny meets the witch maidens they are sure to steal his eyes as well.
The old man may be paying the wages but Johnny rapidly ends up in charge of the farm. He is a whirlwind of energy, tending to the goats and managing all of the housework and generally making himself indispensable. Johnny, it should be noted here, is the kind of person who waltzes into your life and then does exactly what he thinks best, which is how he comes to the decision to take the old man’s goats up to the hill above the forest. His only precaution is to tuck three sprigs of bramble into his hat and to polish up his worst attitude.
While he is watching the goats, he hears a voice cry “God bless you, young goat herd!” and turns to see a very beautiful girl. She could be a relative to Snow White: long black hair, cherry red lips, pale skin and a white dress. She’s also carrying a basket of apples.
The girl offers Johnny an apple from her basket. Guessing that eating the apple will put him under an enchantment, Johnny coolly refuses and the witch maiden stalks off. Soon enough a second witch maiden appears, this one producing a rose that Johnny refuses to smell; and then a third witch maiden tries to comb his hair, only for her wrists to be bound up with bramble. When her sisters come running to try and help her, Johnny pounces on them too.
Once all three are tied up with thorns, he hurries to fetch the old man and tells the witch maidens to return his eyes. “I don’t know where they are,” the first witch maiden declares. Johnny threatens to throw her into the river and she relents, bringing him into the cavern where the witch maidens keep their impressive collection of eyes. It’s kind of a serial killer aesthetic they’ve got going on in there. The witch maiden rummages for a bit and produces a pair of eyes that she says are the right ones. Johnny fits them into the old man’s sockets, but oh dear, the only things he can see are owls. Furious, Johnny really does throw the witch maiden in the river. I am not going to forgive him for that.
Johnny moves on to the second witch maiden, who pretends to find the old man’s eyes and instead gives him ones that see nothing but wolves. She, too, is thrown into the river, which means there is only one sister left. She’s no more willing than the other witch maidens to give up the old man’s eyes – she gives him ones that see nothing but fish – but she’s also Johnny’s last shot at restoring his beloved employer’s sight so he gives the witch maiden another chance and she very reluctantly hands over two blue eyes. The old man cries out in delight. He can see everything…except for the witch maiden, who hoofed it while Johnny was distracted.
Johnny and the old man return home to the farm and live happily ever after, and I choose to believe that the third witch maiden managed to rescue her sisters from the river and they lived happily ever after too. Eye of the beholder!