The last sound she heard was water. It bubbled and flowed from the masses of decaying snow piles, slicked the path and fanned into the spongy turf and sleeping grass. Bits of puddle splashed up on her white socks and white and red legs—a spangle of gray salt drips curving up to the knee. She did not mind, but continued to run across the park, gaining speed as she went. She ran with ease, with a surety of motion and grace. She did not worry about growing tired, or hurting herself. She ran without fear.
The path and park were empty which surprised her because the day was warm at last after an endless winter of endless cold. She wore shorts and a t-shirt that said Big Mama’s Bar, which she was pretty sure she had been to once. The westerly breeze nipped at her upper arms and thighs, and while it was warm enough to melt the snow, she probably should have worn leggings or a wind breaker.
In all honesty, however, it didn’t really matter either way. In about ten minutes, Ronia Drake’s life will end. She will not see death coming, nor will she see it scuttling away, its large mouth damp, drooping and satiated. She will only know a sharp knock, a flurry of feathers and fur, a whisper of her name, and a sharp, curved finger at her throat.
Or perhaps it will be a burst of light.
Or perhaps it will be nothing at all.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who wanted to be a princess. She wanted a pretty ring that glimmered on a pink-tipped finger, a small foot slipped neatly into a smart beaded shoe. She wanted a crown of curls framing a delicate face.
But she was large-footed and ungainly. Her face was broad and fleshy and unbalanced. There was nothing that twinkled. Nothing.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who came into a little bit of magic. Well, perhaps came into is the wrong phrase. Perhaps stole would suffice. Either way, the girl felt, it was nothing more than semantics. When people inherit money they say came into, and since the previous owner was as dead as could be, came into was a good a description as any. Magic, stolen, inherited or otherwise, is an unwieldy tool, but like any other useful thing, can be mastered by anyone who bothers to learn it.
There once was a little girl who wanted to be a princess, and learned magic to make it happen. After several attempts on unsuspecting proxies, the girl turned her magic on herself. She marveled at her tiny feet fit snug in lovely beaded shoes with heels that clicked over a blue tile floor. She marveled at her face, milky soft and delicately boned. A princess’s face. She looked longingly at her hands, her long-fingered hands, as pale as pearls. There should, she felt, be a diamond. And a prince to go with it.
Once upon a time, there was a princess who stole a prince. No, she thought, not stole. Came into. And so what if she used her little bit of magic. Her little inheritance. So what if he needed some encouragement to turn his head. No one cared, anyway. If she could have her way, and she often did, she would tell a new story—the right story—and she would write it like this:
Once upon a time there was a princess. A very pretty princess. Prettier than you. Once upon a time, a very handsome prince stole the very pretty princess.
No, not stole. Came into. And he would not get out.
The moment Ronia Drake died, her daughters turned to their stepmother and pointed.
“Girls,” the stepmother said, “don’t point.”
“You,” the girls said, their small fingers pointing to the stepmother’s pale gold curls, cropped prettily under her ears.
“You,” the girls said, pointing at the stepmother’s swollen belly, which had enlarged upon itself, doubling, then tripling its size until people joked that it must be a medicine ball shoved under her skin. Or a go-kart. Or a truck.
“Girls,” she said again, but she stopped. She never called them by their names. She only called them “girls” when she was feeling petulant and “ladies” when she was feeling fine. Now with the pointing and the accusations, she was feeling petulant. But when she reached for the first one, the one with the scar over her eye (and if only she could remember which one had the scar over her eye) she caught sight of her hand and drew it back with a sharp cry. The stepmother always had lovely hands the color of pearls. Or, at least it seemed like always. She told people that when women let themselves go, the first place it shows is in their hands. No man wants to make love to a woman with red knuckles and cuticles jutting out like spikes. No man wants a woman with quick bitten fingernails, or fingernails rimmed with dirt, or spots or wrinkles or cracks.
Ronia Drake had dreadful hands. It was no wonder her husband left her. The stepmother said this as though it were true. No one noticed the way a smile slicked across her milk-pale skin. No one noticed the strange glitter of her terrible beauty. Or, at least, they pretended not to notice. Instead they nodded to her comment about hands. So true, they said. So very, very true.
But now. Now as the stepmother reached for the accusatory point of one of the girls she saw a hand covered in blood. A hand missing a pinkie and a thumb. And what was worse, it wasn’t her hand at all. It was Ronia Drake’s hand.
As Ronia Drake ran along the path, the wind seemed to curve around her, twisting around like yarn. She didn’t notice the wind, or at least she mostly did not notice. What she did notice is that her hair wouldn’t stay tied back and instead wisped free, tickling her eyes and ears and nose. The left side of the path was a strip of grass that soon would be green but was currently brown, and though it looked prickly, she knew that if she removed her running shoes, the ground would be spongy and cold and soaking. Beyond the grass the ground fell away in a tangle of leafless branches and trunks and thorns that wove against each other in their tumble towards the river below. Ronia Drake always warned her daughters to stay out of those woods. You never know who might be living in those woods.
As Ronia Drake ran, she did not notice the eyes in the woods. She did not notice the way the ravens gathered and re-gathered, only just behind her as she ran. She did not notice the pale reflection that glimmered on the edges of the oil-slicked sheen of the dark puddles. Pale curls danced on the rippling water. And a delicate mouth slashed open in a grin.
Every once in a while there was a bench made of river rocks held together by gravelly mortar with a few splintery planks set across for sitting on. Additionally, there were the occasional ancient barbeques and fire pits with chimneys that pointed effortlessly towards the sky. These, too were made of river rocks. Once, when she had taken her daughters here for a picnic, Anna, or perhaps it was Alice, shimmied to the top of the chimney, her long bare arms and legs moving with the chaotic grace of an insect. Now that she thought about it, it was both Alice and Anna, but it was Anna who fell, slicing the tender skin between her eye and brow on a particularly sharp piece of granite. Alice remained on top, crying, and Ronia never knew if she cried because her sister fell, or if she was frightened, or if she simply did not like to be separated from the girl who shared her face. A man called nine one one on his cell, and the fire truck came to bandage Anna and pluck Alice from the sky. The girls, reunited, wrapped their long, pale arms around each other, whispering soundlessly in each other’s ears.
That night, Ronia had a dream that the girls lived in a nest at the top of the chimney. Their hands gripped the edges of the rocks like talons and they peered down at the people on the path. When Ronia walked along the path looking for her children, the girls threw bits of twig and feathers and dry grass at their mother, but it did not reach her. It blew up in a twisting wind and vanished over the edge of the empty trees. She called to the girls to come down, but they were not girls any longer. They stared down at her with their large, complicated eyes, their gentle antennae clasping and unclasping with the other, their long, thin, green legs, folded under their bodies, ready to spring. Ready to fly away. And they did fly. Over her head, her girls, or her grasshoppers, or her grasshoppers who once were her girls, vaulted across the sky in a buzz of leg and song and endless green.
When she woke, she did not remember the dream, although she told everyone she knew about the strange dream that had haunted her the night before.
“I had the strangest dream,” she told people.
“What was it?” the people asked.
“No idea,” she said, and assumed that it would be enough.
The police were called, more than once, although no one could tell them why they called. People dialed the emergency number and found themselves staring at the place where Ronia Drake once lived and breathed, but now did not. One man vomited on his phone, ruining it forever. A fourteen year old girl tried to explain what she saw, but she fell to her knees and began speaking in tongues instead. An older woman began to have heart palpitations, and asked the dispatcher—a kind woman named Eunice—to send out an extra ambulance while she was at it. When the ambulance arrived, they found the old woman seated under a tree, her legs stretched out in front of her, her body pressed to the trunk of the tree as though pinned. She had faced herself away from the remains of Ronia Drake, which seemed sensible enough, but had died anyway, pressing one hand against her eyes and one on her heart. The fourteen year old girl remained in the center of the path, kneeling, her hands and face pointing to the sky. Her voice had gone hoarse by the time the ambulance came, and the second ambulance, and the fire truck and police car. But her lips continued to move.
The paramedic knelt by some of the remains of Ronia Drake. A hand, a severed ponytail, a bit of tee-shirt that said Mama. The others would begin looking for any kind of identification, though they would find none. They did find a shoe, ten toes (in ten places), a shoulder, a blue eye. Each part was sliced cleanly, as though with a scalpel. There was little blood. The paramedic picked up the ponytail and brought it to his nose. He smelled bread and long limbed children and cut grass and a curved pink lip exposing white teeth that had been sharpened to points. He smelled bright green grasshoppers tenderly washing their faces. He smelled a slim, long-legged deer, bending sweetly to feed upon the damp grass. A deer with two grasshoppers balanced on her delicately boned head. A deer with a blue eye.
“Ronia Drake,” he said to the others. “Her name was Ronia Drake.” He did not explain how he knew this, and no one asked. “And this,” he said, picking up the two hands that had been clasped together as though praying. One hand was red-knuckled and quick bitten. The other was pink tipped and pale as pearls, with a diamond that would have gleamed were it not for the drop of blood that had landed on the stone and no where else. “This,” he said, “is not her hand.”
Above their heads a tribe of ravens gathered and dispersed and gathered again. They landed on empty branches, on signs declaring which path was for biking and which for walking, and on the wet ground. They opened their black beaks and called to another, and back, and back again. The paramedic looked into the glinting eye of the biggest, shiniest of them all. Although he knew it was crazy, he could have sworn the ravens were calling “Ronia, Ronia, Ronia.”
The stepmother locked herself into the bathroom.
“You,” the girls said on the other side of the door. They did not knock or bang.
“Shut up,” the stepmother whispered, her voice like glass in her ears.
“You,” the girls sang. No screeched. No, sang. Sang like birds, like bugs, like gathering ravens. They sang with the voice of something small. Something scuttling. Something with a damp, satiated mouth.
“Tzzz, tzzz, tzzz,” they sang, their voices reverberating on the tile and porcelain, shaking the walls, vibrating the stepmother’s perfect house.
The stepmother covered her ears, felt the coagulating blood gum up on the side of her cheek. Her left hand was bloody still, and still not her own. Ronia Drake’s hand. Ronia Drake’s hand missing a pinkie and a thumb. With the hand that was her own, she gripped at her belly, swollen so taut and tight that threatened to split down the middle. The child inside did not move. It had not moved all day.
When Ronia Drake was pregnant, her husband said that her belly twisted and rumbled from morning to night. He said that the girls were a constant tumble of arms and legs and wings. He said that if you placed your ear on Ronia Drake’s belly, you could hear the girls singing.
“What did they sing,” the stepmother asked, not because she was interested, but because she felt it
would be polite.
“Tzzz, tzzz, tzzz,” he sang on the tips of his white teeth, the teeth she insisted that he bleach.
“That’s not a song,” she said.
“Oh, but it is,” he said, and he sang it again. “Tzzz, tzzz, tzzz.” He sang it gorgeously, lovingly, magnanimously. He sang it with a smile curving across those white white teeth. He never sang that way for her.
As her belly grew, swelled, puffed, she bought a stethoscope, and listened for the sounds of her own child singing. It was silent.
And the stepmother hated the girls. Not the ladies. The girls.
And the stepmother hated Ronia Drake.
As Ronia Drake ran, she did not miss her daughters. She knew she should feel guilty for this but she did not. When she was young, she was afraid of being alone and filled the empty spaces of her life with boyfriends and best friends and intimate acquaintances. But now. Now, it was different.
Ever since her husband learned how to bleach his teeth, how to tousle his hair with pomade, and how to love the woman that would be her daughters’ stepmother, Ronia had her children on Wednesdays through Saturdays, and her husband had them on Sundays through Tuesdays. This was an arrangement that worked for a long time while the stepmother did not conceive. But the stepmother wanted a baby. Of course she did. Pretty girl like that would want to pass it on. Ronia Drake, when she was young and slick with love, wanted a baby as well. She got two, and her body showed it. Then her husband left.
So it goes, she told people.
Finally, the waist of the stepmother swelled prettily. She bloomed, blossomed, was ripe and happy. At first. But after a while the growing was more rapid and uncontained. She doubled, tripled and quadrupled. She grew out of her maternity clothes and hired a nice woman named Lupe to sew new shirts to cover her enormous middle.
You’re fine, the doctors said, you have a healthy boy—and just one, so don’t worry. But the stepmother worried and Ronia Drake could tell.
For two weeks, the stepmother had avoided allowing the girls into her home.
I’m so tired, she said.
My back hurts, my ass hurts, my belly hurts, my legs hurt, she said.
You understand, of course you do, she said.
Ronia Drake held her tongue. Lazy, she thought but smiled kindly instead.
Ronia Drake loved her daughters. Loved them. She loved the mown grass scent of their matching scalps. She loved their reedy arms and matching pale lips, and how, no matter what color they wore, the mind’s eye dressed them in green. She loved they way they pressed their fingertips on her cheekbone when she pretended to sleep. They were her girls, and she loved them.
But when her husband—no, ex-husband—and sometimes her husband’s new wife, came to pick up the girls in the brand new Audi, Ronia Drake kissed their mown grass heads, and straightened their pink shirts and brown pants (though in her memory, they would only be wearing green), and told them to be good girls as she caressed their delicate faces, pressing her fingertips gently along their cheekbones. She stood on the curb and waved to them. They watched her through the window, their faces drawn and solemn. They waved back, the car rumbled then glided away, and her children disappeared.
Then, Ronia Drake did not miss her children. She painted. She worked. She ran—long runs along the river, or the creek, or from one end of the city to the other. Sometimes, she ran for hours without tiring. She felt unfettered, faceless and unnamed. Lost, yes, but there is a freedom in being lost. There is a freedom in abandonment too, if you thought about it right.
She painted the walls in large, complicated murals that changed when she felt it was time for them to change. In the girl’s room, she painted a collage of important women, to inspire them, but when the girls found them boring, she covered up the severe suffragettes and painted bugs instead—delicate arachnids, luscious butterflies as they pleasured trembling flowers, and sure-footed spiders pulling filament upon filament from their bellies. She painted figures that looked like girls if you looked at them in one way, and bugs if you looked at them in another.
In the living room, she painted a girl sitting on a park bench with an old woman. The girl was unattractive, unpleasantly so. The old woman was so old, the folds of her skin so complicated and fragile as to render her shockingly beautiful.
People asked her: “Does she glow in the dark? How did you get the old woman to shine like that?”
I don’t know, Ronia said truthfully.
People asked her, “Is it just me, or is that the ugliest looking ugly girl you’ve ever seen?” They saw the way the ugly girl has just moistened her lips with her cracked tongue, the way the tip lingered under her sharp teeth. They noticed the way her knuckles were bent, ready, itching to strike.
“And look,” the people said. “The branches look like eyes.”
“And look,” the people said. “The grass looks like a mouth. A grassy mouth with hungry teeth and a large damp tongue.”
Oh, Ronia said. I hadn’t noticed.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who sat next to a witch as the sun set over the park. The witch was old and kind, with fragile skin that folded and creased upon itself like a complicated map. When people walked by, the witch would smile, and though they did not notice, they began to relax, soften, become unaccountably happy.
“You see,” the witch said to the girl. “It is neither good nor bad. It is Itself, but can extend our goodness or badness, our foolishness or our intelligence. It’s difficult to use. It has consequences. It is not a toy for children.” She said this kindly, gently, attempting to put her off without being off-putting. She inquired after the girl’s studies, after her friends, but there was little to say in that department.
Besides, the girl was busy rewriting the story:
Once upon a time, there was a princess under a spell. A wicked spell. Cast by a wicked witch. The witch had magic that should not have been hers, while the princess was denied the honor of beauty. In order to break the spell, the witch’s magic needed to be stolen away. The princess broke the spell. She reached into the complicated folds of the witch’s throat and squeezed.
The girl felt the old woman’s magic (neither good nor bad. But unwieldy. With consequences.) surge into her open, astonished mouth.
The police arrived and summarily scratched their heads, wondering where to begin. The paramedic told them what he knew, though he did not say how he came into that knowledge. Better to be vague, he thought. They began to mark the places where the body lay scattered in the damp, brown grass. The paramedic was worried about the ravens that gathered in greater numbers on every branch, on every park bench, on every sign. But they did not make for the meat. In fact, they had stopped calling all together. They watched silently: a gathering, black-coated crowd.
The girl speaking in tongues was coaxed onto a gurney and examined. Her eyes, dilated and wild, circled the sky while her mouth continued to make words that were not words.
“All right, sweetheart,” the paramedic said. “In we go.”
But the girl sat up, her long brown hair falling into her face. She grabbed his uniform and looked directly into his face.
“Tzzz, tzzz, tzzz,” she said.
“Don’t worry honey,” he began but she shook her head.
“Tzzz, tzzz, tzzz,” she said again, more loudly this time.
The paramedic ignored this, and with a one, two, three and a heave, he and his co-workers inserted the gurney into the open maw of the ambulance. He patted the back, and the driver took her away. The ravens watched her go.
The paramedic walked to his bag and reached for it, when he noticed a large, shocking green grasshopper on his hand.
“Hello,” he said to the grasshopper, bringing his hand to his face. The grasshopper did not move, but stared at him with its iridescent eyes, its long legs gently wiping its mouth.
“Tzzz, tzzz, tzzz,” said the grasshopper.
“That seems to be a popular song these days,” the paramedic said, and then stopped. Because the song wasn’t just coming from his hand. It came from the grass, then the tree, then the tangled forest tumbling down to the river. Then, it was everywhere.
The stepmother leaned her expanding bulk against the door. She knocked the back of her head against the teak veneer which she had ordered herself, and had polished to a high gloss. Outside, inside, or perhaps in her head, the girls’ voices went from accusation to song to accusation again.
“You,” they said, their voices sharp as scalpels.
“Tzzz, tzzz,” they sang, their voices an insistent whirr.
“You’re doing it wrong,” she shouted. “This isn’t how the story goes.” Her hand itched. Except it wasn’t her hand. Ronia Drake’s hand itched. But that couldn’t be right. Ronia Drake was dead. The stepmother watched it happen in a slick of water, and water can’t lie. The old woman told her so. And a dead woman can’t itch.
And yet it did, and it was driving her mad. That and the constant drone of the girls outside the door. Not the ladies. The girls. She rubbed Ronia Drake’s hand on the lump of her belly. The child inside did not move. It never did. And it did not sing. She rubbed harder, trying to block out the itch, trying to block out the sound that whirred in the tile, in the air, in her bones. As she rubbed her belly grew. Her buttons popped and cracked the far window with a sharp ping. Her knees buckled under its weight and she crashed to the ground. She looked at the hand. Ronia Drake’s hand. The thing she did not expect. And it had to go. With great effort, she grasped the edges of the sink and lifted herself up. She threw open the door to the medicine cabinet, cracking the mirrored surface against the wall. Grabbing her husband’s razor, she hacked at the skin that bordered Ronia Drake’s unattractive hand with her own pale and creamy skin. It wasn’t enough, of course. How could it be?
“More,” she said to the razor. “Be more, goddamnit.”
And the razor was more. First it was a butcher knife. Then a machete. Then a scimitar. The blade was so sharp it glinted and sang in the air.
“Tzzz,” sang the blade.
“Shut up,” commanded the stepmother. “Just cut.” And it cut. The skin cut quietly. The bone sliced with a short, quick snap, and Ronia Drake’s hand fell softly to the ground with a thud.
If there had been time, the stepmother would have stopped the bleeding with towels, though it would not have been necessary. There was very little blood. But this she did not see because the glossy surface of the door split apart and the air sang. Grasshoppers, electric green and delicate and utterly wild, swarmed into the bathroom. They covered the shower curtain, submerged the sink, blanketed the toilet. They blocked out the light, crawled into her mouth, blocked up her nose, peered into her eyes. And they were beautiful. The stepmother thought, You look just like Alice. Then she thought, No, perhaps it’s Anna. But before she could decide, darkness thundered from all sides and she was lost.
The paramedic shaded his eyes, even though it was cloudy. One cloud, dark, thick and undulating, approached quickly over the tops of the empty handed trees. The cops stopped scratching their heads and looked up at the sky.
“What the hell is that sound?” one of them asked.
The cloud moved faster and faster. When it arrived, the paramedic realized that it wasn’t dark at all. It was green. Deep green, like a still, dark pool. Grasshoppers landed lightly on the brown grass. They balanced on the beaks of the motionless ravens and buzzed wildly in the air around the cops and paramedics and everyone else who stopped at the edge of the police line to watch.
The paramedic cupped his hands around his eyes. He crouched down and tried to get a better view. The grasshoppers seemed familiar to him, though he did not know why. He seemed to recall a girl perched on the top of a stone chimney, and another girl who shared her face crying on the ground beneath. He remembered a woman, a tall woman with long, dark hair and shockingly blue eyes, kneeling next to the girl on the ground, her eye fixed on her child clinging to the edges of the stone.
“Ronia Drake,” he started to say, but a grasshopper flew into his mouth.
“Hush,” he thought he heard it say. Or maybe it was “Tzzz.”
A moment later, the cloud lifted as quickly as it came, tumbling over the twisted bramble and down to the river. By the time the cops and paramedics registered their astonishment they looked down at the ground, at the places where they had marked the locations of the remains of Ronia Drake. The markers still lay on the grass, untouched, but the severed, bloodless pieces of the body of Ronia Drake were gone.
The night after her husband left her, Ronia Drake lay alone in her bed and cried herself to sleep. During the night she had a dream. She dreamt she had fallen off the path in the park and tumbled in the bramble as it fell to the river. She rolled until she reached a narrow ledge where she found a table and two chairs. She sat down. An old woman sat on the other side. She had hair so white it seemed to glow and skin so delicate that, as it folded again and again upon itself, seemed to be the most beautiful thing in the world.
“Tea,” the old woman said, handing her a cup.
“Watch out for puddles,” the old woman told her.
“All right,” Ronia Drake said, her mouth inside the tea cup.
“And take this.” She reached across and fastened a pendant around the neck of Ronia Drake.
“What is it?”
“Change,” the old woman said. “Change is good.”
When Ronia Drake woke up, her legs were covered in red scratches and cuts, and a pendant was fastened around her neck. She never took it off.
Once upon a time there was a man who had a wife that he lost and another wife who was currently locked up and was therefore as good as lost. He could not remember his first wife, though he knew he should. He had an inkling of daughters as well, but that seemed to come and go as well.
Still, he felt lonely.
Still, he felt lost. Once, someone told him that there was a freedom in being lost. And in abandonment, too, if he thought about it right. But he could not, and could only think about the blank spaces where a family should be.
The man’s other wife lived in a tower far away. He rode to see her when he could. Once upon a time, this wife was pretty. Pretty as a princess. But not anymore. Not since they plucked the baby, purple and twisted and waterlogged, from her distended womb. Not since she was found with the hand of a dead woman in the bathroom, with children missing, and razor slices up and down her arm. Now, she lived in a white tower with white walls and a long white gown that tied in the back. Now, her feet are large and ungainly, her face is broad and unbalanced. Now, she whispered stories of witches and insects and a wicked, wicked woman named Ronia Drake.
Ronia Drake, the man thought, and though he could not place it, he liked the sound of that name. It had heft and weight and fragrance. It was familiar, somehow.
Once, the man went walking in the park and fell off the path. He had been warned never to stray from the path, that you never did know who lived in those woods, although, for the life of him, he could not remember who warned him, if anyone did. He fell off the path and tumbled into the greening wood. Halfway down, he reached a ledge of sorts and stood up. The ledge became a path that switched back and forth until it reached the river. He followed it. He couldn’t go up, and perhaps he could find a route to a boat landing, and maybe a road. As he walked, he became aware of something following him, something with soft, sure steps.
A deer stood in front of him, her narrow head tilted slightly to the right. Her breath clouded prettily from a damp, black nose. She was brown and sleek and lovely, her coat shining like a queen’s. And her eyes were wide and intelligent and blue.
Above each eye rested a grasshopper, glimmering like two green jewels. They tilted their iridescent faces towards him, and he could have sworn that one of them winked.
“You,” he said.
“Tzzz,” said the grasshoppers. Or perhaps it was the deer. Or perhaps it was the wood.
Once upon a time there was a prince who searched for his lost love in the deep, dark forest. He never returned.
Kelly Barnhill is a writer and teacher from Minneapolis, where she lives with her three little kids, hardworking husband and emotionally unstable dog. Her work (fiction and nonfiction, Literary, Speculative and Otherwise) has appeared in journals such as The Sun, The Rake, and Fantasy Magazine, and is forthcoming from Weird Tales, Nightshade Books and Notorious Press. Additionally, she writes funny science books for kids, where she gets to explore such heady topics as the importance of bat droppings in deep cave systems, and the exact volume of, well, material, that flows through the sewers of Paris each year. It’s a fun job, actually.