Rebecca Reisert's mesmerizing first novel re-imagines Macbeth, Shakespeare's classic tragedy of power and madness, through the eyes of a mysterious young woman on a dangerous quest for vengeance.
For the girl called Gilly, life in the wilds of Birnam Wood is little more than a desperate struggle for survival. Seven long years have passed since she was first taken in and sheltered by Nettle and Mad Helga, the hut-dwelling wise-women whose inscrutable powers of alchemy and prophecy are feared and reviled throughout good King Duncan's kingdom. Living under the threat of deadly persecution by witch-hunting villagers, the threesome ekes out a life by peddling potions and elixirs, scavenging for food, and robbing the bloodied corpses of Scotland's battle-scarred hills for precious metals and weapons.
But Gilly is haunted by recollections of a much brighter life. She clings to fading memories of a time when she was contented and adored -- until tragedy swept all that happiness away and young Gilly's life was changed forever.
I have made my life an arrow, and His heart is my home. I have made my heart a blade, and His heart is my sheath....Obsessed with avenging her loss and putting out the fire that still rages in her heart, Gilly has dedicated herself to destroying Macbeth, the boundlessly ambitious man who took away her childhood, and his goading wife. Disguising herself as a poor servant boy, she insinuates herself into their lives and, as she bears horrified witness to Macbeth's violent path to power, Gilly subtly begins to take a hand in the forces governing his fate. But as the culmination of her revenge draws near, Gilly finds her own life at risk when she confronts the troubling legacy of a long-concealed heritage.
The Third Witch is a brilliantly imagined, wonderfully satisfying novel. In a riveting story of ruthlessness and revenge, debut author Rebecca Reisert demonstrates a profound understanding of the Bard's timeless drama -- and of the real-life Macbeth upon whom Shakespeare's incarnation is modeled.
For her first novel, high school teacher Reisert gives herself a tough assignment: rewriting Macbeth from the perspective of one of the three witches, here a feisty teenager named Gillyflower, or Gilly. It's an audacious approach that occasionally yields fresh insights, but more often strips bare the chilling allure of the play. The story is that Gilly, having served seven years in Birnam Wood with the witches Nettle and Mad Helga, is ready to seek revenge against Macbeth, who slaughtered her family. Disguised as a cheeky lad, she lands a job in Macbeth's kitchen and then cases the castle, once even climbing up Macbeth's private latrine shaft to eavesdrop on the conniving spouses. But there are distractions, such as her growing attachment to the orphan boy Pod, a young "moonling" she rescues in the woods. And various characters from the play keep implausibly demanding her friendship, including Banquo's son Fleance, and King Duncan's son Prince Malcolm ("Kitchen lad... Without your aid I fear I will perish in earnest"). Soon Gilly has more than Zelig-like ubiquity in the castle: she becomes the prime mover, implicated in everything from the Macduff family's slaughter to the appearance of Banquo's ghost. Reisert even uses Gilly to justify the Macbeths' marriage, as if their intimacy needed explanation. The supple language distantly evokes the poetry of the original ("I am a gapeseed, a strutting hobbledee horse, full of fury and threats but able to do nothing but playact"), yet what's best here is the fetid atmosphere, and the intriguing exploration of the place of women in macho Scotland. But Reisert overdoes the latter, concocting a cheery ending better suited to a politically correct fairy tale than to a female-centric Macbeth. 5-city author tour. (Oct.) Forecast: Fans of Rosalind Miles's Guenevere trilogy will appreciate this title. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Washington Square Press
March 11, 2002
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Excerpt from The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert
"'Tis time to rob the dead."
Nettle kicks me again. I pull my tattered wolfskin closer about my shoulders and curl into a tighter ball, scooting across the packed dirt of the floor to move as near as I dare to the embers in the fire pit.
"Rise up, lass. Stir your lazy bones, or else half the gleanings will be gone before we get there. Do not think to sleep the day away like a princess in a castle."
She kicks me yet again and I open my eyes. Although she is a small woman, she towers above my pallet, her face and shoulders tense as always. If a sorcerer were to bewitch a needle into life, that creature would be Nettle.
Nettle grabs my wolfskin and yanks it from my shoulders. The air is cold and sharp. "Boil a mug of tansy broth for Mad Helga, child, and then we must be off."
"I'm going to the brook first," I announce. "I'll boil the broth when I return." I yank my wolfskin back from her bony fingers.
"There's no time for your foolishness, Gilly. 'Tis already late, and -- "
"I'll not take long, Nettle."
"Gilly, there is no time -- "
Before she can finish speaking, I'm already out the door of our tumbledown hut, dodging the trees and sucking in the cold, sweet-smelling air.
The brook and woods are still black in the mist of the early dawn. At the edge of the brook, just below the small waterfall, I fling off my wolfskin and shift and plunge into the water. I gasp at its icy touch but duck my head under its surface. As my head emerges, I shake back my heavy shock of wet hair and breathe so deeply that it hurts. After the rank and smoky stench of our hut, the forest air is unbelievably sweet. A doe, drinking a few feet downstream, freezes for a moment. I stare back at her until she recognizes me and resumes drinking.
Since there is no one else around, I kneel so the water comes to my shoulders. Under the water and out of sight, I press my palms together. "Make me a tree," I pray. "Let me spend my life pure and clean in the forest. Let me feel a lifetime of wind and rain against my skin. I swear to cast this whole evil business aside if I can be turned into a tree."
I wait. The woods are silent. Even the doe is still. The only sound is the gurgling of the water.
I jump up, waist-deep in the brook, and fling my arms out like branches. "Change me!" I scream as I close my eyes. Make me a tree. Make me a tree. I will ask nothing else if only you will make me a tree.
I hear the doe give a small leap, then run away, brushing through the bushes as softly as a kiss. There is no other answer. I am still a girl standing like a lackwit in the icy water. I begin to laugh and then shiver. For a while I stand there, shivering and laughing like the greatest fool on earth.
I give a quick bow to the sky that is so dark it looks empty. "You are right, old man. I should not be happy as a tree. I would miss running." I add, "But I gave you your chance. You could have stopped all this. Should I take it as your sign of approval, then, that you are willing to have me kill Him?"
I wait for the length of ten heartbeats, but there is still no answer. "Your stars are comely," I call to the sky, "but I do not care for your silence."
Then I step quickly from the water, shaking my body like a wet wolf pup. I pull my shift over my head as I walk back to the hut. As I push the trestle door open, I call, "I'm back, Nettle. I'll brew the tansy broth, and -- "
"Do not bother. I did it myself."
"Nettle, I told you that I would just be a moment -- "
"I do not approve of this folly, wetting yourself down twice a day. 'Tis madness, it is, Gillyflower, and more than one king has died of it."