This story comes from Papua New Guinea; the version comes from the 1988 Ruth Manning-Sanders collection A Cauldron of Witches. It begins by introducing us to Tow-how, a hero armed with a magic disc that allows him to see what other people cannot and to change his shape however he wishes. It is the sort of possession that gives you confidence, which is why he decides to take a day trip to an island where nobody else ever, ever goes, because nobody ever, ever comes back. Tow-how thinks it’s time to change all that.
Arriving on the island, he searches for any trace of another living creature but finds none. It’s a bit of an anti-climax. It being such a hot day, Tow-how curls up under a tree to take a nap, only to be attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. At least, they look like mosquitoes. When Tow-how takes up his magic disc, however, they are revealed as black bats with unearthly gleaming eyes. Tow-how promptly changes himself into an ant and hides under the disc, and when the bats go for the disc, its edges turn so sharp that they are forced to retreat. The bats who are most badly wounded turn, unexpectedly, into black stones. The others hide, and wait.
Tow-how, nothing daunted, goes back to sleep. The remaining bats turn into trees and coral rocks, and come creeping closer, closer. Tow-how is woken abruptly by the fierce nudge of his magic disc. He blinks at the trees – they stop moving. He looks at the rocks – they stop moving. Tow-how is more amused than intimidated. When the creatures get close enough to be a concern, Tow-how holds out his magic disc and laughs to watch his enemies’ hasty retreat.
So the island is now a lot more interesting, worth a bit more exploration. Tow-how starts walking through the forest. Suddenly he hears footsteps behind him, and the sound of someone’s breathing. When Tow-how coughs, something coughs with him; when he hums, it hums; when he stops walking, it stops too. Tow-how experiments a little. He throws a stone into the bushes and his pursuer does the same.
Tow-how thinks that this being, whatever it is, wants him to turn around, so he does not do that. He just keeps walking. By moonrise, he has emerged onto a grass plain and sits beside a well to rest his legs. Idly glancing at the reflection of the moon in the water, Tow-how is startled to see his pursuer reflected there instead: a thin, ragged old woman who is pointing and grinning at him. Tow-how finally turns to look. The old woman leaps past him into the well.
She sinks to the bottom, which is the expected thing if you jump in wells, then rises up again, which is…not. And when she returns, she is devastatingly beautiful, not to mention exquisitely dressed. She embraces Tow-how and sings sweetly of her loneliness and her urgent need to kiss him. Tow-how bends his head, their lips almost touch. Fortunately his disc intervenes, jumping into his hand, and as it does so, Tow-how hears the wailing of spirit voices warning him of doom. This woman is why none of the men who came to the island ever came back again.
Tow-how hits her in the face with his disc and pelts off as fast as he can. Returning to the form of an old woman, the witch comes snarling after him, lashing out with clawed hands. With every step she grows taller and her voice grows louder until she is taller than the trees and screaming like a gale. Tow-how manages to keep just ahead of her, plunging down the beach into his canoe. When he looks back, he sees the vast shadowy shape of her pacing at the water’s edge and shrieking furiously. But she cannot reach him, and Tow-how returns home unscathed.
I realise this witch is very frightening and that she’s killed a lot of people, and that she turns into a giant when she is angry. And none of those are good things. But I have to admit I’m kind of pleased she gets to keep her island.