"What's cooking gals?" asked Shelly. With her experience, she could tell when her daughters etched a naughty plot. Their eyes would pop out, and there would be a hush-hush air around.
"Nothin' Mom," said Molly, the nine year old, plain faced.
"None whatsoever," Jolly suppressed an upcoming giggle. She was to have her sixth birthday in a couple of days.
Must be some gimmick for the forthcoming birthday, thought Shelly. She adored the girls. Her life revolved around her two daughters, more so after the death of her husband three years back in a car accident. She teaches in the school of the village, a quaint hamlet bordering on a huge forest. She has lived here since last fifteen years or so since she came here as a newlywed bride of twenty-five. Molly and Jolly are full of life and pranks, keeping the household vibrant all along. The only thing that worries Shelly is the daredevil attitude of the sisters that bordered on foolhardiness at times.
"Make sure to be decent on Jolly's birthday. I want your behaviour exemplary in front of the guests," warned Shelly.
"Sure Mom." The girls told in unison.
Shelly remained unsure. Whenever they agreed easily, it did not augur well. She kept her fingers crossed.
It was Sunday. Shelly could afford a nap following lunch. At five in the afternoon, she started for the special Sunday market.
"I'm off to market," she announced. "Don't go out of the house and behave properly." The girls tilted their heads obediently.
They were waiting for this opportunity. The plan chalked out in the morning had nothing to do with birthday plans. They wanted to visit the Forbidden Fortress. It is a place they are told to stay off. Reportedly, it is occupied by an old witch who can transform any human into an animal like wolf, deer or sheep as per her fancies. Disobedient children were converted into lambs as per folklore of the village.
Molly and Jolly were keen to learn magic so that they could play the tricks on some of their wicked friends, especially Robin, who is a big bully. Today was the day they would meet the witch and learn a few tricks in wizardry!
It was about half an hour's run for them through the bushes to reach the fortress. They were panting as they entered it.
"Supposing the witch turns us into lambs?" confidence of Jolly took a dent for the first time ever since they planned the adventure.
Molly thought for a second. She wanted to put up a brave face in front of her baby sister. "Don't worry. I know how to come out of that."
Jolly had immense faith in her elder sibling. She looked reassured. They tiptoed inside the left out edifice.
The half-built walls and the floor made of stones looked unusually clean for an abandoned place. The courtyard in front remained visible in the faint light of the setting sun. They peeped in leaning against a wall.
An eerie silence prevailed in the open space beyond. At a distance stood a stone hut where a ram and a couple of ewe stood in silence.
"These are the humans transformed into animals." Molly was excited, yet nervous.
"The ram looks like Uncle-Stewart." Jolly giggled, referring to the short-tempered grocery owner of the village.
"Hush!" Molly kept her finger on her lips. The door of the hut was opening.
The witch emerged from within. She was frail, old, with jute-like dishevelled hair, and shrivelled skin. Her small face had a pair of large, bright eyes, and she wore a charming smile. A wolf and a deer were at her heels. She had a large robe on, like a witch; but had no wand in her hand. She noticed the girls and stretched her arms in welcome.
"Come, little girls," she smiled.
The girls hesitated, looking at the scary wolf.
"He is Zingo," the woman patted the wolf's head. "He won't do any harm to you."
There was something in the old woman's ways. The girls proceeded towards her in hesitant steps. Zingo did not move. The woman caressed the girls' hair.
"Who are you girls?" she asked in a quivering, but a pretty voice.
"I'm jolly, and she's Molly," grinned Jolly exposing her missing incisors.
"Aren't you afraid of me?" the woman smiled. "Don't you know I'm a witch?"
"No, you are Grandma," Jolly embraced the woman.
"Sweet Grandma," repeated Molly.
"Dear! O dear," tears of joy rolled down the cheeks of the witch as she kissed their faces in turn.
"Have you turned them into animals, Grandma?" asked Molly as she looked around.
"So, that's how the wind blows! Witch turning humans to animals!" she started laughing. She was edentulous. "No dears, I can't perform any trick like that. They are simply my pets. I'm only a grandma who has lost her family and who makes a living by selling pickles." She went inside the hut to come out with mango pickles to hand it over to them.
"Don't you know any magic?" asked Molly, disheartened.
"Magic?" she pondered. "Yes, I know only one magic. Come with me." She moved near a wall and emitted a sweet cooing sound cupping her hands over her face.
And lo! Birds of different colours flew in to sit on her sprayed hands and started pecking her lovingly. The animals around started licking her feet.
"See," she smiled ever so sweetly, "this is the best magic we can do. It's called Love." The girls kept gazing amazed.
"Didn't I tell you not to leave the house?" Shelly was back by the time they returned.
"We'd just been to a friend's house Mom," said Molly. "She is so sweet!"
"Ve-e-e-ry sweet!" echoed Jolly.
These children! Wondered Shelly, relaxing on her armchair.