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The swirling mist soon receded from the dock as she swam towards the bank. Her tendrils of long, black hair flew in the air like fluttering pieces of paper. When she moved her hands, they swerved about as if they needed to be somewhere. Many people saw this girl when she went into town each day, after her morning swim. The girls scowled in jealousy, while the boys, just now getting jobs, whistled and shouted catcalls, trying to tempt her. She simply ignored it all.
She knew that she was beautiful, and she didn’t try to be modest by covering it up. She never accented with a pot of rouge, thinking it would make her constantly look modest or embarrassed, both of which she was anything but. She knew that if anybody ever found out about what she was, she’d be burned. She always kept near the outskirts of the village, which made people only think of her worse.
She’d just appeared out of nowhere one day, walking into the village as if she’d lived there her whole life. The mothers and daughters, who kept to their tightly knit social groups, instantly labeled her a witch, a gypsy of some sort, planning to lure their husbands and lovers into seduction. The teenage boys saw her as an angel, a beauty of something not quite human. She never paid them any heed. She would just walk in and out of the vendor’s shops, always coming out with a book or a new journal and quills.
That always sent everyone reeling. Girls of her age weren’t supposed to be the bookish, writing type. They were supposed to get married almost immediately out of graduation, and then remain forever as a housewife. Whenever the rare occasion arose that somebody went over to her and spoke about it, or anything for that matter, she would fix a stare at them that sent them reeling into apologies about disturbing her, and would quickly return to their work. Her stare was not one of bulging eyes in anger, or of hurt. It was not one of superiority, or one of manipulation.
No, wait. It was one of manipulation. She would slightly cock her head to one side, just barely purse her lips, and raise one eyebrow, just enough to see it move. I had experienced it before, once when I was about fifteen. She had just come to town, and I wondered if she needed help finding any specific shops. I went over, asked her if she was having difficulty finding anything and if she liked the town. Then she gave me that stare. I had never seen anyone look at me that way. I didn’t feel insulted or ridiculed, or frightened that she was about to burst in anger. I just felt…silly.
I later thought to myself why I had been so foolish to ask her that kind of question. She obviously looked perfectly capable of finding anything on her own. My mother later pulled me over and hissed to me, “I saw you talking to that witch earlier, foolish boy. If I ever catch you associating with that girl again, son, I will see to it personally that your father give you six lashes with his belt. Are you not blind to see that that girl is a devil’s child? She does not put her hair up, like all the girls do. She just lets it hang, like a little rag doll! And have you ever seen what she carries out of the shops? Books and papers is all! Books and papers! What kind of well-brought up young lady would ever do such a thing?”
My mother stopped, rolled her eyes, sighed, and then went on, more urgently, “no well-brought up lady, that’s what kind. Let me make it quite clear, my addle-minded boy, that one day, one day we will find her secret, and it will be one of dark magic. Rest assured though, that we will rid of her as soon as we are ready with enough kindling.” She patted my hand shakily, as if those words were supposed to comfort me, and then went on to catch up with her friends. Mother was probably right, as she was most of the time, and I probably should have heeded her warning. But her speech only did exactly as she had hoped it would not: I became fascinated with the girl.
One day, an especially hot June afternoon, I saw her walk out of the local printing press, her face smudged here and there with ink. She wore a grin, as if she knew a secret that nobody else knew, of which she was probably right; no one ever gossiped about anything but her, how the war had changed their lives, how much taxes would impact their social life, that sort of thing.
Suddenly, she tripped, sending her basket and all its contents flying, papers flapping in the air like seagulls. Everybody stopped to laugh and point at her, finally glad that she was getting what was coming to her. As she scrambled to pick up the papers, a girl with light blond hair went over and kicked dust in the girl’s face, screaming all the time, “witch! witch!” I found myself feeling extremely sorry for her, seeing as she had nothing to the girl, much less anybody else for that matter.
She collected the papers and stuffed them into her basket, slowly getting up to face the blond girl. “Don’t you dare look at me, witch!” the girl cried, slowly backing up in spite of her bold demeanor. “My father is chief justice,” she said, “and if you so much as ruffle my hair, I’ll see to it that he puts you in the jailhouse!”
With that, the girl, now being cheered on by the onlookers to say more to her, pushed her so hard that she tumbled backwards and fell hard on her back, coiling into a ball to lessen the pain. She slowly got to her feet, and then struck the girl with the most fearsome stare I had ever seen anybody give to another.
It was not of her regular stare, but something else. Again, it was very difficult to pinpoint the exact emotion coming out in that stare, even though it was obvious that she was angry. Her eyes turned dark as her face slowly tilted downward, her eyebrows starting to lower. Then, she steadily raised up her hand and pointed her index finger at the girl, whose face had gone almost instantly been drained off all its color.
“P-p-put your f-f-f-ffinger dddown witch,” she stuttered, starting to back away, the crowd now disintegrating. She then picked up her basket with a shaking hand, and tripping on her skirt, turned tail and ran to her house. The girl lowered her finger and gave a small grin to herself.
The man who managed the printing press, a portly fellow with a bushy moustache, came running up to her and whispered something in her. He looked at her, and she nodded, as serious as ever. He put his hand on her shoulder and shook it, then walked back into his shop.
Questions started reeling into my head like a railway train as soon as he left: what had the man told her? Why did she seem so solemn all of a sudden? And what was she? It was quite obvious that she was not entirely human about her, and I wanted to know what, as soon as I could get her alone (which wouldn’t be that hard), and get her to trust me enough to answer my questions.
Before I did that, though, I trotted over to the printing press, walked over to the man, and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and asked, “can I help you sir?” in the ready-to-help tone that all the shopkeepers used.
I looked around to see if anyone was looking, then lowered my head, and asked, “the girl. The one with the black hair. Do you talk to her often?”
The man seemed quite puzzled about this, then tentatively replied, “why, yes, I do, son. Why does that interest you though?”
I looked around once more, and then asked, lowering my voice, “what is her name?”
The man blinked his eyes a few times, then sputtered, “w-w-what?”
I kept my gaze on him, unwavering, and then repeated myself, “what is the girl’s name?”
He nearly choked. He took in a few breaths, closed his eyes, and sighed. He soon opened them again, and then answered, “I can’t tell you that, boy. There is a lot about that girl that you don’t know, and that absolutely no one should ever find out about. The other people are already suspicious, and I can’t trust a young, sixteen year old boy not to go spilling his guts to everyone at the slightest hint of people pressuring him to do so. If anyone found out that she was-,”
He stopped dead in his tracks, not finishing his sentence, his eyes the size of dinner plates, horrified that he had almost given away information. But he had. His saying that if anyone found out that she was…. something, had confirmed my thought that she was not normal at all, she was something else…but what? I felt so confused, with all the possibilities of what she could be buzzing around in my head without an answer.
“Sir,” I whispered softly, “I’m not asking what she is. And if I was, I promise I would never tell a soul. Just one look at her tells me that she’s different. All I want to know is her name. You might know this already, but sir, apart from you, absolutely everybody hates her.”
The old man laughed, a laugh that made me feel like a child again, asking a foolish question. The man wiped a tear from his eye and said, “young man, you need not worry about that girl. She has many more friends than you think. Anyway, it wouldn’t be wise to offer her help. That girl always wants to do things without assistance. She might fix you with that look she gave the little blond girl.”
I hesitated at the thought of that, remembering the way she looked when she stared that way at that girl. I’d never want to be looked at that at any point in my life. I opened my mouth to speak, but then shut it, because I didn’t quite know how to answer to that. I then found the words and spoke them. “Old man,” I said declaratively, “I wish to know the name of the girl and I’m not leaving until I do.” I felt like the mayor probably felt when he was giving a speech: forceful, independent, positive that nothing could go wrong.
The man looked at me like he might look at a child who had refused to obey a command. He then inhaled loudly, and said, “very well, lad. You win. The name of the girl…” I could hardly stop myself from shaking the words out of him, I was so built up with anticipation, “…is absolutely none of your business, young man, and you would do well to keep your nose where it belongs.
I was enraged. All I wanted to know was her name, and he was incompetent enough to refuse me the answer. Then again, I had called him an old man, I thought while walking out of the shop. Then I turned to the matter at hand, and my new idea. All I had to do was make friends with the girl, and then I’d find out, not just her name, but also everything I needed to know about her, especially what she was. I walked home, looking fervently for a glimpse of her, her black hair, her twittering hands, any sign that she was near, but had no such luck. I got home and ran up to my bed, where I lay awake thinking of her, while waiting for sleep to come.
I woke up in a haze. Everything seemed a little softer, surrounded by a light fog. I slowly started to focus my eyes, and then saw that I wasn’t alone. There was someone there…who, who? I squinted to try to make my vision a little better. I got up out of bed and started towards the person, while asking, “who are you?” in a hoarse voice.
All of a sudden, the person lunged for me, pinning my arms to my sides and bringing me down with no trouble at all. I tried to wriggle my body out of their grip, but they held even harder, making me yelp in pain. I then felt a wet cloth over my mouth. I shook my head violently, trying as hard as I could to scream for help, to get the cloth away from me. It could be poison, slow to act and painful.
All of a sudden, my muscles almost instantly relaxed, against my will, as I started to sink down to the ground, feeling all of a sudden exhausted. Everything got dimmer, dimmer, as I sank further into the ground, then below the ground, it felt, going into the dirt under the floor. I tried to call out in a last attempt for help, but the cloth was pressed tighter on my mouth, and then I decided that it didn’t matter, since I was sinking into the ground, sinking, sinking…
There was a hot, blinding light, painful to my eyes even under their lids, which woke me up almost instantly. I couldn’t remember a thing. Where was I? What was going on? Then the memory of the person in my room, attacking me and pulling me down, putting a cloth on my mouth, probably chlorophorm, I thought as realization slowly returned to me of what had happened.
My head was absolutely pounding. I started to raise my hand up to my head, but was stopped short. Why couldn’t I move my hand any further? Was I paralyzed? I then looked down to see that there was rope, starting just below my elbow up to the shoulder. Then I saw that my entire torso was tied with something, but not rope…cords? I wasn’t sure, but I knew I had to get out of them. I wriggled my body against the binds, but they wouldn’t budge. I tried again, but the cords wouldn’t inch loose of whatever I was tied to.
I blinked my eyes a few times, feeling half-weightless, which was most likely from whatever drug was on that cloth. Everything was fuzzy, just blobs of color, floating around like little lights. I tried to inch up what I was tied to, and then felt a rush of pain soar up my left leg, making me whimper. I looked down to see it somewhat bent at an odd angle. All I knew was that it was hurting enough to cripple me.
I then saw a much larger blob, coming toward me, blocking out all of the other blobs, and then stopping. Some of the drug faded just a little for me to speak a word: “what?”
I questioned what the blob was, why I was tied up, everything that needed an explanation. I felt something cool touch my lips, which were dry and cracked. I realized that it was water, and drank heartily. About two seconds later, I spat the water out, spraying it everywhere. I remembered the drug that had set me like this, and I didn’t want any other kind of drug in me.
A slap answered my spray, cold and hard, sending my head spinning. Then a voice said, “you do that again, boy,” it said, sounding like steel, “ and you’ll get more than a slap.”
Some more of the fog in my head receded, and I was able to ask, “who’s that?”
The voice spoke again, the sound of it grinding my bones, “it won’t do you any good to know.”
I felt another touch to my lips, still cool. Instead of spitting it, I shut my mouth hard, and turned my head to the side. Then there were hands on me, incredibly strong on my jaw, forcing my head to turn and my mouth to open. The water flowed down my throat, settling in my stomach. I wearily asked, “where am I?”
“You’re in your room,” the voice replied plainly. “And you’re going to stay where you are in your room until I get through your thick skull to stop asking questions,” it added icily, scaring me senseless.
Hands came to rest tensely on my shoulders, and I was shook, while the voice explained, “you stay away from the girl, you hear? And that man at the printing press. That old fool should have known better than to talk to you. A brainless child is bound to tell anything he knows!” the hands came off my shoulders. As soon as they did, I shouted, “I’m not brainless!”
Another slap, ten times worse than the previous one, flew over my cheek, sounding like a gunshot. Another liquid seeped onto my tongue, and I tasted blood.
“You’ll do well to watch your tongue, boy,” the voice said dangerously.
I then felt the binds loosen and fall to my feet. The hands came upon me again, picking me up. My instinct reacted immediately, and I fought as hard as I could. I was thrown onto my bed, and then felt the hands again, pressing me very hard into the mattress. For the second time that night, I felt a cool cloth press tightly over my mouth. I could taste the bitter chemicals in the drug that it was saturated in, for there was a much heavier dose of it this time. I was slightly more prepared though, and thrashed my head about, trying to loosen the cloth off of my mouth. But this only sent it to be pressed even tighter, making it hard to breathe and my mouth to ache. Then my leg muscles stopped instantly, as they had been squirming around like snakes. My short, agitated breaths quickly receded to long, heavy breaths. Then, before I sank, I gave one last try to prevent what was coming. I shook my body from side to side, violently, as much as I could. I then felt a hard blow, and sank into a drugged sleep.
The hands, the hands! I thought as I felt something nudge me in the side. They’re here again. They’re going to kill me!! I whimpered like a little dog, terrified that I was about to be smothered to death. But then I heard a familiar voice, this one like warmed honeydew, whisper calmly, “Tim, wake up sweet.” It was the sound of my mother’s voice, a sound that, right now, was more beautiful than ever after what had happened.
I cracked open my eyes to see sunlight pouring in through my window, casting a pool of warm light on my floor. I turned my head to see my mother looking down upon me, her eyes a bit puffy from tiredness. She nudged me again, while quietly saying, “the school won’t wait for lollygaggers.”
Gag, my mind thought, terrified at the single word, remembering the two cloths that had been pressed on my mouth just hours before, gagging and drugging me into sleep. I shuddered at the memory and made my way to get up. Then, the searing pain that I had felt before returned, like a hot iron as it coursed its way up my leg. I grasped onto my thigh as I tried not to cry out in pain. I couldn’t prevent my face from contorting, though, and my mother noticed it.
“What’s wrong, love?” she asked, her voice worrying over what had caused me to make that face.
“My leg,” I croaked, as I was still slightly under the drug’s power. “My leg,” I repeated, when she didn’t move to examine it. I pulled back the covers to show her my contorted limb, still at an odd angle. She gasped and brought her hands to her mouth, as she hadn’t anticipated that. “Oh, honey!” she exclaimed, sounding really scared. “What happened?”
I hadn’t thought that she’d ask that. Of course I couldn’t tell her what had actually taken place. She’d think I was going mad, and needed to be shut away in an asylum. I searched for an explanation, anything that could fit into the outcome of my leg.
“I-I fell out of bed during the night,” I said, hoping it sounded convincing enough. “My leg caught on the bedpost as I fell.” I downshifted my eyes, hoping that would be enough to make her believe it. If she knew I was lying, I’d be whipped.
“Oh, dear,” replied, “honey, I think it might be broken!” She moved her hands slowly toward my leg, and tried to elevate it. Less than three inches later I yelped and threw my hands to my leg instinctively. She brought her hand to her chin, a habit of hers that always started up when she was thinking.
She then shrugged her shoulders and said, “your father will have to take you to the doctor.” My thoughts were dim. My father was a good man, and he meant well, but he was a strong man, and accidentally handled delicate things a little bit roughly. Since having him taking me to the doctor meant he’d have to carry me there, which only would make me ache more. I returned my concentration to my mother. She looked at me with a pained expression, as if she wanted to feel my pain for me. “I suppose this means that I’ll have to stay home today,” I inquired, hoping that that was true.
“Of course, sweetie,” she purred, pulling the covers closer to my chin. “Just let me get you something to drink. Breaks of the bones suck you dry,” she recited, probably from one of the little bits of gossip that her friends fed her. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep. But the second that my eyelids fell, I saw the image of the blobs again, felt the wetness of the cloth pressing tighter, suffocating me. My eyes snapped open immediately, my breathing coming in harsh pants. I realized that my eyes were stinging, and blinked back the tears quickly. Painful to imagine or not, I would not cry at anything.
Knowing that I wasn’t getting to sleep any time soon, I turned my eyes toward the ceiling, and started to think of her. Of her and her raven-black hair, long as a length of rope, her slender torso, bobbing from side to side as she walked, of her flawless face, her eyes as green as a bright gem, her nose with the slight bump near the edge of it, her lips, so luscious and full…wait a minute. Her lips? Why was I thinking of her lips? I had never looked at her face that much at all, much less her lips. My mind tried to find an answer to this new question, but before an answer could be found, my mother marched in, a hot bowl of soup in her hands and a sympathetic smile on her face. “Now, you drink this,” she said, laying the bowl on my stomach, “and I’ll tell you when you’ll be going over to the doctor in a while.” She gave my head a half-hearted pat, and then left me to drink my soup and search for the answer to the question I now couldn’t remember.
I limped into the classroom on crutches, my arms sore from carrying my body around for two days. The doctor had found that my leg was broken in four places, and that there were heavy bruises all over my body. That came at no surprise to me at all, remembering how strong those hands had been. Surely they were strong enough to break a bone four times, if not more. He’d bound it up in a splint and suggested that I use crutches, as it is very difficult to hobble around with a broken leg.
Whenever I’d seen a man walk around in crutches in my youth, I’d always thought that it looked like so much fun. I’d even tried to break my leg just to be able to use a pair. Now I couldn’t wait until I got off of them. One of the boys in my class came over and shoved me to the side. “Hey, cripple,” he jeered, prodding and poking me in my gut, an area that had been aching ever since the doctor tested it for internal damage. The cords were most likely the cause of this pain, as was every pain on my body due to that little event.
He kept poking me here and there, until I pushed his hand away. “Just leave me the hell alone,” I said wearily, starting to feel annoyance and anger bubble up inside me. I knew this boy. He was the one who always got into the most trouble for doing things like dipping girls’ braids into inkwells, tripping the younger kids, and putting tacks on various people’s seats. It had happened to me once before. He smiled and said he was sorry, but I knew he was lying through his teeth.
“What’s wrong, cripple?” he asked in mock concern. “Need your mommy to hand feed you?” he laughed at his own cleverness, then returned to mocking me. “Most people can still use their hands when their leg breaks, ya know,” he said, lightly pushing me, catching me off balance and causing me to stumble backwards. He laughed at my clumsiness, then said, “all the attention must have gone to your brain, cause you sure can’t use it to stand straight,” he choked out between hoots of laughter.
The line had been drawn. I did what I could to get up slowly, and once I did, said to him, in a whisper so only he could hear, “you watch it, creep. I know her, and you don’t want me to get her in here to deal with you, now do you?” He knew exactly whom I meant by her, and I could see it by the terrified look on his face.
“Y-y-ou’re b-b-b-luffing,” he stuttered out, his eyes widening with every word.
“You think so, do you?” I asked, enjoying myself over how gullible he was. “I just need to make one snap,” I put my fingers in a snapping position, “and she’ll come like hound to its master.” I started counting: “one… two… three…”
I saw his eyes nearly pop out of their sockets in fear, and he couldn’t contain it any longer. “Put it down, put it down!” he cried, on the brink of tears. I could see them start to form. I grinned and lowered my hand. “I hope this will help you remember,” I said, lowering my voice, “that when I say ‘leave me the hell alone,’ I mean, ‘leave me the hell alone.’ Is that understood?”
He solemnly nodded, his eyes wider than ever. He then scuttled over to his desk, where he kept his head down and didn’t say another word for the rest of class.
It was after class, and I was walking… excuse me, hobbling… through the “town square,” where who should appear out of the printing press, clutching her basket laden down with paper and a new paperback?
I instantly changed my direction, and hobbled over to her as fast as I could, praying that she wouldn’t hear me and start to run away. She did hear me, but she didn’t run away. She just turned to face me and waited for me to catch up to her. It struck me as odd that she’d react like that, but I didn’t slow my pace. Once I was close enough that she could hear me, I urgently demanded, while rubbing my arms, “who are you?”
She was taken aback, and I could see it. She started acting anxious, looking from side to side and breathing quickly. Suddenly, she grabbed me by the shoulders. I hadn’t expected her to be as strong as she was, and it took a bit of breath out of me. I realized that her mouth was near my ear, her breath tickling the little hairs on my ear. I felt an intake of breath, and then heard her whisper, “Meet me tonight. At the dock. Midnight sharp. If you’re there at 12:01, you’ll find an empty dock. Got it?” She drew back to face me, and she looked like she was about to do another stare. I nodded my head, uncertain, but curious. Questions were forming again, one after another. Why midnight? Why the dock? How come she was as strong as she was?
I treated the third question the same as I had with the thought about her lips: I quickly dismissed it. After all, with everything going on, it was the least of my problems. When I looked up to ask why at midnight, there was no one there. As I looked up and down the road, I saw nobody who looked like her around. But that was impossible, as someone would have left something in their wake that showed movement, but there wasn’t even dust. I added this to my ever-growing list of strange goings on.