Don Carmelo had traveled the land from the arid sands of León to the seas of Cartagena. He was a very vain man, and believed he had seen all that Spain had to offer. He knew well the old mosques of Córdoba and the bustling squares of Madrid, had even ventured to the Galician countryside to look distrustfully at the Portuguese border. But he had never once ventured across the Pyrenees into France.
Don Carmelo was a man of great fashion, and the fashion in those days was to leave one’s homeland and never return, but instead to pine for it from the luxurious prison of Paris. And so, on a whim, he saddled up his strongest stallion and set forth from his estate towards the foothills, leaving behind all of his treasures, save the one he could not bear to part with: a lock of his beloved Blanca’s hair, cut the night she died.
Night fell over Don Carmelo when he was near the peak of the last foothill before the mountains began in earnest. He had just dismounted to tie his steed and make camp when he heard voices nearby. He held the reins steady and listened, but he couldn’t quite make out the words being muttered. It sounded like a gathering some little ways away, and so he remounted his horse and went on through the dark until suddenly the trees stopped growing.
He arrived in a clearing with three squat huts and seven women, all ugly, all identical but for the colors they wore. One was draped in a gown of bloody red, another in bright Valencian orange, the third in mustard yellow, the fourth in darkest green, the fifth in the blue of the seas, the sixth in the violet of distant mountains, and the final in a gown of purest white. As one, the wall of rainbow women looked up, their wrinkled faces pinching together as their yellowed eyes met his.
“Buenas noches, damas. My name is Don Carmelo. I seek a place to rest for the night. Do you know where I might find the nearest village?”
“There is no village for miles and miles,” the women say in unison. “You are welcome to stay with us.”
Don Carmelo’s skin prickled at the very thought of it. But he couldn’t rest in the forest nearby knowing that these hags had all seen him. Who knew what they might do if he rejected their charity?
“I wouldn’t want to impose,” he said graciously, but he had already decided that he would rather stay the night here than alone. At least he could hear them this way.
“Stay with us,” said the women in red, orange, and yellow, “and we will ensure your safe passage through the mountains, for a price.”
“Stay with us,” said the women in green, blue, and purple, “and we will ensure your safe return home, for a price.”
“Stay with me,” said the woman in white, “and I will grant your heart’s truest desire, for a price.”
Each set of women looked expectantly at him. He looked back, unsure what to do, then looked down at the lock of Blanca’s hair in his hands, remembering her moon-bright skin, her laughing eyes, her full lips pink as the salmon she once loved to eat.
“Dama, I will stay with you,” he said to the woman in white, then turned to the others. “Gracias por todo. Buenas noches, damas.”
As he watched, the other women filed back into the first and second huts. The crone in white extended her shaking, gnarled hand to him and he took it, holding fast to Blanca’s hair and the reins of his stallion with the other.
He staked and tied his horse behind the third hut to pasture, and followed the woman inside. The hut was bare of furnishings, but for a small carpet in one corner and a shovel in another. A small fire blazed at the center of the room, held aloft in the air and spending no fuel that Don Carmelo could see.
“What price do you ask, Dama?” Don Carmelo asked once he was finished marveling at the flames. “I have gold and jewels aplenty at my estate.”
“I need nothing of your material wealth,” she said. “I can conjure gold and gems myself.” She pulled a coin from the air, and closed it in her fist. When she opened it again, it was a large, smooth ruby. She placed the gem in the fire, where it disappeared. Her hands came away unburnt. “I will ask you to do three tasks for me. Tell me what it is that your heart desires, that I might make it manifest for you.”
“My beloved Blanca, the beauty I was once betrothed to. She died the night before we were to wed. Bring her back to life and I will do anything you ask of me.”
The hag looked him up and down, evaluating his request, then nodded. “First you must dig a hole, as long and deep as you are tall, and as wide as you are broad.”
“Oh, anywhere outside will do. You must dig it tonight. Use that shovel there.”
And so he took the shovel and he dug a hole behind the house. His hands grew blisters, and splinters from the shovel popped them. He relished the pain, though. It was nothing compared to the joy of regaining Blanca.
When the hole was completed to the hag’s specifications, he returned inside. Hours had passed but the crone still stood waiting.
“Very well,” she said. “For your second task you must give me the lock of Blanca’s hair which you carry with you always.”
Don Carmelo was sad to part with the hair, but he knew it would be worth it to have Blanca back.
“It is yours, Dama, but please be careful with it.”
“I will treat it as though it is my own.” As she said this, the hair began to grow in her hands, upwards towards her scalp. It latched there, and the rest of her white, patchy hair became black and lustrous, just as Blanca’s once was.
Don Carmelo held back a grimace. But this must be to the witch’s plan. He could despise her all he wanted once Blanca was back.
“What is your third task, Dama? I would like to get it over with and see my beloved.”
She smiled, displaying three yellow teeth and many empty gums. “Come outside with me, and Blanca will live again.”
He followed her outside, heart leaping in anticipation. “Andale,” he exclaimed.
She stopped just next to the hole he had dug, and turned to him.
“For your final task, you must die.”
Don Carmelo blinked, certain he had misheard her. But she did not say anything, merely stared at him.
When he finally opened his mouth to protest, she put a haggard finger to his lips.
“It is a side effect of the magic, of sorts. For her to live, you must die.”
Don Carmelo braced himself, then leaned backwards and fell into the grave. As he watched, the witch above him transformed, her face smoothing and paling, her body straightening and filling.
And the last thing he saw was Blanca’s beautiful face, and her long fingers scattering a handful of dirt onto his corpse.