(This story originally appeared in Underneath the Juniper Tree.)
On the edge of a town, three witches made their camp -- gathering wood and drawing water from a nearby stream. No sooner had the cauldron begun to boil than they were spotted by a young farmer. While the witches prepared their meal, he ran to town to share the news.
When the dairy farmer had reported the size of the cauldron, the mood among the townspeople was grim. They agreed they couldn’t make the witches leave. What they could do, one woman suggested, was offer a bribe. So the townspeople collected eggs, salt, and a goat, and placed everything where the dairy farmer had told them, trusting that the goat’s constant bleating would draw the witches near.
At dusk, the townspeople heard a strange noise. The witches were singing! Their song didn’t have any words, but it sounded familiar nonetheless. People debated whether it meant the witches had accepted their bribe -- but the song was so lovely that everyone fell asleep feeling optimistic.
In the morning a third of the male population was gone (including the young farmer). The witches had lured the men away from their homes, through the woods, to the lip of the cauldron … and that was the last anyone ever saw of them. Somewhere in the distance, the goat brayed inconsolably.
Still, the townspeople couldn’t make the witches leave, so the remaining men barricaded their doors and tied their feet together. They told their wives to stuff cotton in their ears, and swore they wouldn’t be seduced. But, that night, the three witches sang their song, and by dawn of the second day another third of the male population was gone.
What could the surviving third do? They smashed their toes with hammers! They slashed their tendons with knives! And still, on the third morning, there wasn’t a single man left. In groups of four or five, the townswomen toured all the houses, checking under beds and inside closets. Finally, they gathered at a crooked shack that stood far apart from anything else. Inside, they found an old man lying on the floor. He, too, had injured both his legs.
The old man said, “You shan’t have me.”
Lifting him up by his rug, the townswomen carried him to the singing witches. They'd turned their cauldron upside-down to drain and were sitting in its shadow, cradling their bellies and sharpening their teeth.
“You shan’t have me,” growled the old man, when they set him down.
One of the townswomen stepped forward to address the witches. “You said all,” she complained. “You said all, and there’s still one left.”
“YOU SHAN’T HAVE ME!”
A little girl ran up and kicked the old man in the ribs. Whimpering, he buried his face in his hands.
“Make good on your promise,” the spokeswoman demanded. “Or else give us something in return.”
“A refund?” said the first witch.
“You can’t have the goat,” replied the second witch. “We already ate him.”
The third witch craned her neck and belched. “The pail of salt,” she bargained. “Keep however much is left. Your menfolk tasted like dirt.”
So the townswomen accepted the pail of salt and returned to their homes. And the old man wished he could hear the witches’ singing one more time.