The girl came to us in winter. Half-dead with hunger and with tramping through the blinding snow, bloodshot-eyed, all her movements small and quick and wary as a cat’s. She’d scratched at the door like a cat, too, fallen more than stepped through when we opened it. Sanctuary seemed like the least we could offer.
She was good with the animals and with a needle and thread, less use in the kitchen. But her real skill was telling stories. We sat up late each night that winter, and she glowed like a paper lantern before the fire. Brushed out of its hedgewitch tangles and lovingly oiled, her hair was pitch-dark and shining. Her voice was low for a girl’s and always quiet, so we were sure to listen.
Always the same theme, though the figures differed: the peasant girl holding her breath in the forest; the princess pursued. Always the bad men, just out of sight, one step behind or around the corner, waiting.
The stories were never finished. She’d glance over at my father, pretending to nod in his chair and watching her from the corner of his eye, and murmur, “Time for bed?” leaving her heroine still frozen in flight.
We should have grown tired of the tales, given up hope of ever reaching a denouement — but entertainment was scarce in those cold months, and so every evening we begged for just one more. Perhaps this time the bad men would lose sight of their quarry once and for all.
She was outside, feeding the chickens, when they came. We barred the door, and I could not think of a protest that wouldn’t stick in my throat.
She looked back without rancour, without even disappointment, and turned to face them.
We held the bolt tight shut until dawn, our hands growing stiff with the cold burn of the metal. When morning and silence came, we opened it.
My sisters wept and hid behind the door. I looked around in search of an ending. I’d expected to see some sign of a struggle, some testimony bled onto the ground or scratched into the gatepost. But fresh snow had fallen during the night, and the world was clean and beautiful as a blank page.
Jessica George is a PhD student from Pontypool, South Wales. She writes what she feels like reading.