Deep in the darkest part of the Musty Wood lived a withered hag. The old woman, crooked with the weight of age, spent her days foraging about the damp expanse of the forest floor. The hag wore the hardness of life in her hands. They were callused and scarred with jagged brown nails appointing gnarled fingers. With them she clawed the lowly dark spaces and moist pockets beneath the tree roots. For all her scratching, she was richly rewarded with dank clumps of fungus, mosses and the occasional hapless vole. These meager collections became the bitter stew which was her only sustenance.
To compliment her stooped shoulders and sallow flesh, the hag’s waning eyesight was sufficiently dimmed as to ensure she overlooked many more pleasant and nutritious bits that might have otherwise been collected. In their place, the random snip of bark or small stone regularly found its way into her crusty knapsack… and subsequently into the bitter stew.
In the decades of her gouging, today’s hunt would prove unlike any before it. Today’s forage through the forest’s fetid regions produced an unexpected, but welcome surprise.
Lodged squarely in the tangled roots of an ancient Zelkova tree glistened the still warm tip of an enormous severed toe. The toe, red stained and steaming, had its exposed bone jutting upward as though it were the last hors d’oeuvre on a moss-covered tray.
“What’s this?” she exclaimed, bending to scoop the orphaned digit into her sack. Pleased with the windfall, the hag halted her search and sped back to her windowless earthen grotto.
Once inside, she threw off her cape and opened the firebox on her stove. A few amber ashes remained hopefully warm. The hag puffed at them until a new fire had arisen. She scooted a deep black pot over the warmest spot. This quickly brought the previous day’s nasty porridge to a prickly boil. Contented by the blisters of popping gruel, she fetched her sack and fished out the trophy.
“Awfully fury…” she mumbled, picking long gray curls from the plump knuckle. The chalky yellowed nail she could live with… it would soften in the cooking, but hair, that would stick between what few cracked teeth that her wrinkled mouth still held.
With a gleeful plop, the hag dropped the toe into the pot. She knew it had to simmer for some time for the flavors to meld and the old toe’s flesh to become tender enough to slide free of its bone.
The hours passed slowly. As the hag impatiently poked about the pot, the toe bobbed up and down as though it were a fisherman’s cork. She fanned the fire. She paced. Malodorous curls of steam filled the air as she stirred at the caldron of limp lichens and mushy toadstools. Try as she might, she could do little to hasten the toe into doneness.
When she could wait no longer, the hag plunged a large brown clay bowl into the bubbly warm mixture. A slurry of gruel dripped from the bowl and back into the pot. Like a miner panning for gold she scooped and swayed until the tender toe slipped over the edge and into her crock.
Suspended between the twin peaks of avarice and gluttony, the hag couldn’t decide whether to gobble it up first or just stare at it while she ate the pool of stew in which it sat.
The debate was short lived. The hag quickly picked out the morsel and sucked the steamy meat free of its bone. As she spit the small segments of toe bone on to the floor, the soft spicy flesh traversed its way into her rumbling stomach.
Having soon cleaned the bowl of its contents, the old hag gathered herself, a candle and the cloak upon which she slept. With these things, she retired to a dark passage in the rear of her murky cavernous dwelling. Warm with a full belly, the hag fell quickly asleep. The comfort of late afternoon napping slipped into the blackness of night.
The Musty Wood, safe under the cover of darkness, came alive with croaking frogs, buzzing insects and other things rustling through its opaque brush. Accustomed to such noises, the hag slept undisturbed. Had she kept notice of such things, the exact hour of 3 a.m. would have been noteworthy. For it was exactly that time at which the whirring forest cacophony stilled into complete silence.
“Ohoooo,” moaned a voice in the distance.
The hag was undisturbed.
“Ohoooo,” it said again.
“Whooo,” said the voice, growing both louder and clearer.
Amid lippy smacks the sleeping hag rolled over in her bedding.
“WHO?” the voice said, now much closer.
“Mummph?” groaned the hag, slowly coming back from sleep.
“WHO???” the nearing voice demanded.
“Who?” grumbled the hag at being half-wrenched from a blissful slumber.
“Who? WHO?!?” groaned the nearing voice.
The hag stirred. Her eyes barely slit open, she tried to focus on the noise.
Heavy lopsided steps pushed against the forest floor.
“What could that…?” wondered the stirring hag.
The voice arose again, “My toe… who…”
“Huh?” wondered the hag aloud, now sitting up.
“My TOE! Who ate my toe?” asked the growing voice.
“Oh,” realized the hag.
“WHO ATE MY HAIRY TOE???” the voice again demanded.
The hag’s mind raced. For a moment, she tried to convince herself that this was all just a very vivid dream, brought on by eating the spicy toe.
The voice unsatisfied, drew closer. The hag could now hear its breathing. She felt her own heart quicken. She cocooned herself in the bedclothes. She prayed it would just go away. How could the voice know what she’d done? Her protests didn’t matter, the voice didknow.
The old hag felt the roof of her grotto shake. Little clods of dirt fell from their pockets onto the floor.
“MY TOE!!! WHO ATE MY HAIRY TOE???” a booming voice thundered above her.
The hag cowered, “Oh, not dreaming… not dreaming at all,” she thought.
“WHO ATE MY HAIRY TOE???” tore through the walls like an earthquake.
Plates fell from their shelves. Pictures leapt from the walls.
The hag felt her heart pounding in her throat. Each beat pushed breath further from her mouth. Save for the tumult of her terror, the hag had but one feeling: the wriggle of the toe inside her stomach.
As the hovel’s broad, wooden door flew from its rusty iron hinges, an enormous shadowy figure moved to take its place.
“WHO ATE MY HAIRY TOE???” howled the monstrous form.
The hag, rapt in a fear of final moments, threw off her cloak, jumped to her feet and screamed, “GWAT!!! I ATE IT!!!”
Author’s Note:Many people have expressed dissatisfaction with the ending of this story. This is a very old folktale, perhaps coming from the Appalachians or Eastern Europe. For better or worse, this is how the story ends and I didn’t feel that I had the right to change that central feature of its telling. One other detail worth mentioning: If you should happen to find a large severed toe, leave it where it is and for heaven’s sake, don’t eat it. -SMP