Most nights she shoots up from her pillow, her fine blond hair loose from its nightcap, sticking in a web across her face. Adrenaline coursing the way those horses her father always eyed used to speed down the track. Ears pricked forward. Sweat gleaming. Her adrenaline is a racehorse, navigating the canals of her body, sounding the alarm for her organs. That might explain the tingling.
These are her thoughts when she wakes up screaming.
It was always in the gray hours between night and morning when she used to be summoned. The gossamer-thin sheets with rat gnawings on the corners were ripped back, the voice screeched up the rickety wooden stairs.
Now she wakes up screaming and swinging, fists balled. She keeps her nails short, but they still carve half-moon scars into her palms. A frozen lunar cycle in her hands.
He was raised to work with his hands. His first toy had been a scrap of wood with the edges worn down. He had clung to it with his baby grip, refusing to let go during the months he spent in the oak cradle his father had carved, sanded and polished.
Once between the age of four or five, his father had taken his hands in his own. His father’s calluses scratched in the not unpleasant way his beard scratched against the boy’s cheek when he picked him up for a hug. This time his father squatted down, brown eyes level with his own. Hands tell stories, his father had explained, squeezing gently, then turning his palms upward. Ours tell the story of hard labor.
As soon as he could push the straw broom, he spent his days in his father’s shop. He liked sweeping the wood shavings into a pile and watching as they shook off their coat of dust motes, sending them soaring into the sunlight that filtered through the cracks in the wall. In those moments, he was able to see the soul of the wood up close, breathing. He never told anyone that.
When the winter wind snapped with jagged teeth, his mother made a special balm for his father to rub into his hands. It was the color of warm butter, melting in his palms. She sweet-talked ingredients from the merchant with the funny mustache, who had stolen them straight from the king’s cellar and whisked them right underneath the Captain of the Guard’s nose. Or so he said.
He remembered the day his father had put a dollop of the balm on his own knuckles. He had massaged it reverently into the lines of each finger joint. It smelled of the cinnamon bread they ate once a year, but sharper. Potent.
His sister wasn’t allowed to have any of the balm, and she pouted, her bottom lip protruding so far that the pink of her mouth showed. That night, a small wooden rocking horse rested in the dent of her pillow to make it up to her.
This was his childhood. And so, he grew – into a boy with broad shoulders and a gift for wood-working, a boy who knew that hands told stories.
She paces, pale fingers tracing the grimy wall of her room in the inn. She paces a lot these days. It helps her think. Or not think. Whichever.
One, two, who are you
Three, four lock the door
She hums the tune under her breath, even though she knows the other guests don’t like it. They complain to the innkeeper that the walls are too thin, that she sounds like an animal rasping dying breaths. Still she hums.
It’s always the same songs. You would think she wouldn’t want to remember them, after she had to sing them so often. So often that her voice strained beyond cracking and her vocal chords scraped together and bled, clumps of blood-specked phlegm that she had hacked up onto her pillow, too exhausted to lean over the side. She woke with it matted into her hair, a tangle of gore she never bothered to brush out. Still, she had been made to sing.
Five, six thorns and sticks
Seven, eight you’re too late
She knows she had sung other songs, once. Before she had been stolen away, before her soft hands had toughened from scrubbing and scraping and her voice had been sung hollow. She had to have known other songs because the witch had mentioned it. She took her because of her voice.
There is only one clear memory of the time that came before. She had been singing some nonsensical child’s song, tugging on her father’s trouser leg, trying to get him to listen. But his eyes were intent on those horses, following them around and around and around the track. They ran until their mouths were foamy and the whites of their eyes showed. Her father’s eyes never left them, never glanced down at her, no matter how loudly, how petulantly she sang.
In her dirty little room in the inn, she stops pacing, stops humming. Draws her fingers away from the wall, raises a scarred palm to cup her mouth. Huffs out, catches the scent in her nostrils.
It smells of rust.
Fortunately, it was his weaker hand. He had been too careless, gotten too cocky. He would like to remember later that he had barely shed a tear, but of course that wasn’t true. His scream was so piercing, it was probably what had torn his skin.
When he returned from the village with the blood beginning to stain the white strips on his stump, his father muttered that it would be all right, then lumbered off to his shop without looking at him. His father grieved best there, hands occupied.
His sister busied herself with a pot of soup, shooting him concerned glances from the corner of her eye. He stared into the cooking fire from the stool in their tiny kitchen, his wrists resting on his knees, one blood-soaked, the other dirt-smudged. He should have paid more attention to the soul of the wood. Tracing the lines he could make out on his remaining palm, he wondered: was he only half a story now?
This time the village healer suggests that she try the leeches. She leaves the inn to visit the healer’s hut in the early morning hours, shuffling along the moonlit dirt paths long before the earliest risers in the village are disentangling themselves from their sheets to bake the morning bread.
The leeches suction onto her arms and legs, minute mouths sucking, sucking. Trying to drain the energy from her body, restore the balance. One slithers its way up to her throat, positioning itself right where her songs used to spring from, latches itself there. Others gnaw the scarred crescents of her palms, trying to suck those up, too.
She feels her eyes closing as her heart pulsates in rhythm with the sucking. She embraces the blackness, finds herself remembering that night with the singing and the witch and the boy.
It had been in the gray hours when the sheets ripped and the witch demanded that she bring the boy in from the stall. She’d raised herself on trembling arms, dry heaved once, then somehow pulled herself into a standing position. She started down the stairs, one by one, and made it halfway before one foot tripped over another and she crumpled at the bottom of the last step, a heap of matted hair and bones.
The witch shrieked for her to come into the bedroom, now.
Twice before she had stood at the door without the witch knowing. Watched through the crack near the frame as the witch drew a tin from her dresser and applied a thick yellow balm to her face, paying special attention to the wrinkles in the corners of her eyes.
This time, the door to the bedroom was flung wide. Before a mirror that was chipped and spotted at the corners, the witch brushed dust off the puffed shoulders of her crushed velvet plum dress. The gold stitching on her cuffs had been picked by some other nervous woman decades ago, and the material near the shoulders sagged, but remnants of elegance remained. She wanted nothing more than to snatch it off the witch’s wilting frame. The thick material would make a warm blanket.
I want you to fetch the boy from the stall, the witch said, taking one last long look in the mirror before turning to rummage in her dresser drawer. Fetch him, and have him put on the clothes in the next room. Then bring him here. The witch turned back to the mirror, balm pooling like drips of moonlight in her hand.
She kept her gaze low as she walked out to the stable, unlocked the far stall where the boy had been kept for several months now – she couldn’t be sure how long. All she knew was that now he, like her, was too weak to run.
Wordlessly, she grabbed him by the elbow of the arm that still had a hand and shuffled him into the cottage. She pointed toward the clothes that had been left by the hearth, but didn’t turn as he put them on. She didn’t have the energy for unnecessary movement.
The witch stood waiting in the center of her bedroom, chin lifted high, white hair piled on top of her head. She noticed the powder on the witch’s cheeks, a pink and white residue that smudged the boy’s face when he walked uncertainly toward her and she reached up to wrap her arms around his neck.
Sing, the witch had snapped to her, and so, sitting in the corner of the room with her knees drawn into her chest, she sang, her voice growing raspier as she croaked out line by line of the witch’s strange songs. She didn’t dare pause for breath, so she sang raggedly, blood pooling in her throat.
The boy shifted in a grotesque imitation of dancing as he and the witch went round, her drooping chin resting on his shoulder. When they circled back and she got a good view of the witch’s face, something glinted near the corner of her eye. It must have been a trick of the moonlight; the witch never cried. She couldn’t.
When you’re still learning to cope with only one hand and you stray too far, you get stolen by the traders. At least, that’s what he’d pieced together as he lay in the back of a cart under a long piece of oilcloth, head slapping the side when the road dipped or the horse jostled.
He had only meant to explore a little bit, go looking for the soul of the wood in a shaft of sunlight. He’d been spending more time in the forest, less time in the shop. It was unbearable to see his father shaking his head, running his hands through his beard again and again on the other side of the room as he watched his son struggle to carve at even a fraction of his former speed and skill.
Even his mother and sister treated him differently. They didn’t like to look at the stump, would avert their eyes when he rubbed the yellow balm on it. What once was exciting, even magical, had become mundane and painful.
He wasn’t sure what to expect when the woman bought him from that market, deep in the woods where no respectable villager ever wandered. She’d pushed through the undergrowth at the edge of the clearing, panting as she arrived halfway through the auction.
Scanning the rows of available children, her eyes had settled on him, and she tapped the trader on the shoulder and gestured in his direction. The two carried on a swift, heated conversation. Her eyes didn’t leave him. You could tell she was used to getting her way. She tapped her foot the entire time.
An agreement finally reached, the trader sulkily projected a long stream of tobacco juice after the boy as he pushed him forward, onto his knees at the old woman’s feet. Her gaze didn’t show a flicker of concern before she spun around, marched out of the clearing the same way she had come. He couldn’t help but struggle up and follow at her heels.
He wondered where this part was etched into his palm.
She lied, before. She had seen the witch cry before that. Lots of times. It was just easier to pretend she hadn’t.
After they danced that night, the old woman had led him to the kitchen table, her grip surprisingly strong for someone so old. She sank into the chair across from him, her old purple dress ballooning around her, rustling. The neckline sagged low as she leaned across the table toward him, elbows in front of her.
Grasping the corner of the table, feeling the familiar whorls of rough-hewn wood, he tried to meet the old woman’s stare. The girl with the wild eyes and knotted hair slipped away upstairs.
He was alone with the old woman.
After holding his gaze for a long time – it could have been minutes or hours – she told him matter-of-factly that she was damned to eat human flesh, and he was sure he’d misheard, but she repeated herself calmly and clearly, said that it was the only way she was able to stay young. Her jowls quivered as she spoke, a string of saliva working its way down from the corner of her mouth. The old woman didn’t seem to notice.
He had resolved to stay silent, but she kept speaking, her normally beady eyes glazed as she explained that it wouldn’t be for a while yet, but it would be gruesome when it happened, and he just needed to understand that it was nothing personal. She actually quite liked him, even if he was disfigured.
As she spoke, strands of white hair had fallen from the elaborate bun on top of her head, giving her a younger look as she snapped her focus back to him, pleading without exactly saying the words for him to know that she was sorry. For him to have pity on her, even if he was the one to be consumed.
The way the moonlight was shining through the window, you could see how the old woman might have been beautiful.
He hadn’t meant to speak, but suddenly he found himself spluttering. Words tripped over themselves, trickling out of his mouth as he told her about this method he had heard about, how he’d considered it when he’d first begun to learn what it meant to live with only one hand, half a story. Squeezing the table, he listed the different ways the method worked.
The old woman stared back until he lapsed into silence, and still she stared. The tears, caught in the deep wrinkles of her cheeks, reflected the moonlight.
When the healer pulls the last reluctant leech off and places a warm hand on her shoulder, telling her to rest for a moment, she raises trembling hands to her face. She covers her eyes so that the white half-moons are all she can see, but then she closes her eyelids and waits for the shaking to subside.
That night with the witch and the boy isn’t the only one carved into the black of her mind.
She had stifled her coughs in her pillow, heard their whole conversation through the cracks in the floorboard. She wanted to know more. He was startled, maybe even a little repulsed when she curled up outside his stall. She whispered in her broken voice that she wanted to hear him speak. He was hesitant, but soon he talked and talked, telling of his life before the accident, before his family was ashamed of him, telling of carving and taming bonfires at village festivals and watching his mother make balm with ingredients stolen right out from underneath the Captain of the Guard’s nose. She closed her eyes and could nearly picture it.
She offered to sing, but he said she should rest. So she listened, humming softly as the boy told her story after story. Some nights she pushed a piece of wood from the witch’s fire pile under the stall door, watched as he carved it with the broken-off edge of a rusted plow while he spoke. Other nights she held her palms up to the bars of the stall, let him trace the lines with his one hand and predict where else her life might lead, past today’s crescent scars.
She began to weave some of the elements the boy had mentioned in his breathless speech and their nighttime meetings into her songs, singing stories of wood and licking fire. She was sure the witch noticed. She paid with freshly blooming bruises and an even rawer throat, but still she sang her melodies, and she noticed the witch crying more.
G. and H.
If you were to ask them now, they would tell you that they hadn’t really meant to do it.
Yet there they were, frozen in a shaft of moonlight as their captor was enveloped in fire.
The sun is on the verge of clawing its way up above the land as she picks her way back through the village, back to the inn. She avoids the eyes of passerby, keeping her own trained on the molten rays, even though it sears. The sun is so angry red that it reminds her of the flames, and she leans against someone’s hut, quaking with memory.
She had built up a blaze on the wood of the table, thrown the heavy velvet dress over the sleeping witch’s head before tying her against the chair with the bedsheet, ripping it into manageable strips with her teeth. Pushed the witch, chair and all, into the fire-engulfed table and then stumbled outside, coughing as she dragged the boy from his stall to see that she had made the fire her own. She had bowed over, retching blood clots as the blaze leapt higher and higher, trying to lick the moon. There might have been screams, but maybe that was the cackle of fire striking the night air.
Her next memory was of the healer’s hut, of bandages and candlelight and a steady voice. The healer said she had found her on the doorstep, drawing shallower and shallower breaths. There might have been a knock at the door, but it could have been the wind.
Many weeks later, the healer couldn’t tell her where the witch had lived or where the boy had gone. The healer stroked her forehead with a damp rag, said witches lived far away and if there had been a boy maybe he crawled into a farmer’s crop wagon and found the healer in the next village over.
She knows the witch had to have been real. But she finds herself wondering if she had dreamed the boy up, had stretched her mind so hard that it snapped and left a chasm that she filled with a made-up boy with one hand and too many stories.
She sits on the edge of her creaky bed at the inn, massaging her throat with her scarred palms and wondering if that is possible. Maybe she’ll ask the healer.
Afterward, everyone thought there had been something between him and the wild-eyed girl. That they had been co-conspirators, at the least. Plotted the old woman’s death in hushed whispers at night, fingers tracing symbols and rubbing out fruitless plans in the dust outside his stall until they finally settled on one that worked.
Most thought they had been lovers. Before he’d left his village, before the sideways glances had been too much for him, some of his childhood friends tried to go about the business of reconnecting. They took him to the tavern that had cropped up in his absence, ordered him some drinks. A couple rounds in, after he’d said several times that he hadn’t done anything besides tell stories about wood and fire, one of them asked about her. Murmurings were spreading from a few villages over about an emaciated girl with no voice who claimed she had been raised by a witch. Her story, the timeline, matched up with his.
His friends leaned in, the alcohol sour. He snorted in the middle of a sip, the beer burning his nostrils. If you’d only seen this girl, he said.
He never saw her again. Or maybe he did, many years afterward, and just didn’t know it. It was too hard to look at everyone’s hands, read their stories. He traced his own hand, rubbing the balm in after carving, trying to look past the blisters and understand the lines, read if their lives would intersect again.
He liked to imagine her sometimes. Bloodstains scrubbed away from the corners of her mouth, purple shadows under her eyes returned to their normal hue. Her gnarled tangle of hair combed out, so that the blond tendrils fanned around her face like a halo. She was always wearing a floor-length, simple dress and she never spoke, because she couldn’t, as she smiled and raised her palms up and outward, toward him. Her throat and hands were marked with the remnants of nightmares and memories, but he understood, because he was marked, too.
He wasn’t much of a dancer, but somehow in those imaginary moments he knew exactly what to do, resting his stump on her waist and grasping her hand in his. And they swayed back and forth, palms pressed together. Their shaft of moonlight dancefloor was tiny, yet they never outdistanced it – the tiny sliver that did not wax or wane, but was perpetually where they needed it to be as they swayed within its edges. A frozen lunar cycle, etched in his mind.