By Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis
“Eva, go and feed your sister.”
I adore my sister when she is herself, but I tremble at my father’s words. I go on stitching a button eye to my rag doll and pretend not to hear him. The scrape of his whetstone on the wood axe ceases.
He is wondering, I know, how much longer until my time comes.
I pull on my coat, and plunge into the winter cold. A pail waits just beyond the door. Frost clings to the sour meat within. My nose wrinkles, but not so much as it does in summer. My sister will eat anything.
A path of footprints leads from our cottage to the keeping room, a squat building of mortared stone. The pines cast long shadows in the light of a full moon, and the snow glitters. An owl cries; a branch cracks somewhere in the woods. I shiver against the brittle cold and quicken my pace.
I stop beside the heavy door. My hand hovers by the latch and I think of the promise we made. But I hear her stir within. She smells me. Her chain rattles, her breath is heavy, and a probing claw scrapes stone.
I slop her frigid meal into the feeding chute. A low growl rumbles, and then the tear and gnash of her eating. I dash back to the house, the pail banging against my thigh.
“Don’t slam the door,” my father mutters.
“Yes, papa,” I say, trying to still my panting breaths and pounding heart.
I return to my place before the fire, try to sew with trembling fingers, and in my mind repeat my private scripture; never me, never me.
“Our village is cursed,” my father said, to quiet my weeping. My sister’s cries rang in my ears. The sight of her haunted me, silver collar already clamped around her neck, clawing at the doorframe, thrashing in my father’s arms. “Since the time of my grandfather’s grandfather, and even before. It has to be done. She would have killed us.”
He stepped toward me. I shied away from him, sucked air through gritted teeth.
“You are too young to understand.” He sighed, then went to his chair and packed his pipe. A breath of smoke curled around him, and I thought of the dragons in my grandmother’s stories, the ones she had told before she died. Would a knight come to break my sister’s chains?
“It happens to all the girls,” he said, staring at the wall. Deep shadows darkened his eyes. He sat slumped and weary, as though his struggle with my sister had drained all his strength. “From the time they first bleed to their first child. All the girls.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “If only your mother were still alive.”
I was four years old, too young to understand him, but old enough to hate him for the collar, for my sister’s scrabbling hands, her pleading cries.
“It’ll happen to you, too,” he said. “Best get used to the idea.”
I balled my fists and shook my head. No. Never me.
My sister has a suitor. Georg, the cobbler’s son. He is tall and aspen-thin, with a wispy beard and eyebrows so blonde they disappear. He will be my sister’s salvation, and my father’s. They are to be wed this year, before my change comes.
“Eva,” my sister says, while my father bids Georg goodbye beyond the door. “Will you do it this month?”
Her eyes are cold. How many months have passed, since we agreed to run away? Shame burns my face. I study her shoes.
“You have Georg–”
“I don’t want him.” She is still staring. I can feel it. “His breath smells of tobacco and rotten apples. You promised, Eva.”
Her hand clamps around my fingers, squeezes so tight I fear she’ll crush them.
“It was only a story, Klara.” The last story my grandmother told, of the old woman who lived alone in the forest, with no man nor any child. A woman who found a way to stop the change.
“Then you shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Why don’t you just run?” I say. “Before the change happens?”
She glares at me. “Why don’t you?”
Because we are weak, and small, and the men of the village will hunt us down for fear that word of the curse will spread. They have told us as much. They would rather kill us than risk the king’s men coming down with torches and silver arrows and hard faces ready to leave no tainted soul alive.
We sit in silence till father comes back, looking happier than I have seen him since our mother died. One of his daughters is engaged to be married. Half of his trouble will soon belong to another man. He looks at my lap and frowns.
“Aren’t you getting old for dolls?”
“Your sister was younger than you, the first time,” my father says when he returns from chaining Klara. His eyes are sorrowful, as they always are on nights like this. “You’ll go out once your sister’s wed, whether you’ve bled by then or no.”
When he sleeps I take his axe and creep from the house, careful to let the door glide quietly on its leather hinges.
The latch is hammered iron, and too complicated to be opened by claws, but there is no lock. It only opens from the outside, and who in their right mind would release a virgin under the full moon?
Darkness waits within, broken by two points of yellow light that hover in the black. A low growl rumbles from my sister, and she pads toward me, her claws clicking on the stone floor. Her chain rasps and she grunts. I feel the warmth of her breath, like a dog’s.
My heart thunders. My legs quiver and my arms can barely hold the axe. I want to flee, to run back to the warm shelter of my father’s arms. But I know. He cannot protect me from fate. He was the one, after all, who tied the chains.
I reach out to my sister. She sniffs my hand, eyes me warily.
“I’m sorry I waited so long,” I say, tear-choked.
Three blows of the axe and she is free. For a taught moment she stares at me, yellow eyes unblinking. She steps forward, and I backpedal, but she nuzzles my shoulder. She remembers. She is herself, the same Klara, underneath. I scramble onto her back, curl my fingers tight in her fur, and we are free.
Of course they come after us; we are too dangerous wild.
Hoof beats and frantic shouts echo between the trees. My sister’s sides heave and her feet churn the glittering snow. I cling tight to her and whisper encouragement, but in the pit of my soul I know there is no old woman, no cottage, no cure, and I want to give up, to go back to the warmth of my father’s arms.
My father, and his silver chains.
“No,” I whisper. “Never me.”