Gretchen lived with her godmother in a cottage at the edge of the forest, but we mustn’t get carried away: this might just as easily have happened if she lived further down the hill, or far off in the middle of the village. This could happen to anyone. But it so happened that the cottage where Gretchen lived with her godmother was out at the very edge of the forest, and from the garden it was possible to look over the splintered fence (on tiptoes at first; after the growth-spurt, no problem) and see the trunks of the trees striping the darkness, and follow the bristling movement of the shadows, and watch the pinpoints of light staring back before flickering out.
‘Don’t go in the forest,’ was one of the first things she learned, and after that her godmother taught Gretchen all about herbs, history, generosity, inquisitiveness, common sense: the usual things. By the time we meet her, Gretchen is a young woman, and she can spin, maintain a garden, recite a poem, drive a bargain, milk a goat, climb a tree, follow a map.
Gretchen, then, on her knees in the garden, pulling at some plant or other — let’s say it’s beetroot, a reliable crop beetroot, solid choice — when the calmness of the day is torn in two. A scream, ripping the sky.
Gretchen, looking up, muddy stalks in hand, sees a dark shape spiralling in and out of the trees. It looks like a huge bird is battling a giant fox, a fight of outrageous ferocity, and in mid-air: both creatures are in a killing grip, a bundle of fury and spiked wings. The pair dive out of sight back into the forest and here’s Gretchen, rising, running to follow. Chasing the smoke and the unholy shrieks, pushing the brambles and thorns aside, going after the sound. You would, wouldn’t you?
She finds them in a clearing edged with ferns, the desperate fight still going on. A tree stump nearby is splattered with blood, there’s gore all over the moss. It’s a battle with death in the balance, no question, and now she is closer to the creatures she sees their talons are sharp and many inches long, and the bird-creature’s wings have a jagged sharpness, more like a fan of blades than of feathers, and the fox-thing has more teeth than it surely should.
The bird-creature is moving oddly. It keeps going, with juddery steps, towards a particular fern, clearly not wanting to move far from the spot: the bird-thing is on the defensive, and the fox-thing is on the attack, and the prize is hidden among those ferns. Gretchen, crouching, hiding in the thicket, understands this has been going on for some time. The fox-thing’s tail is bloody and thin, partially ripped away. Teeth are bared, talons are out, blood has spread over torn feathers and matted fur.
As if sensing the last grains of sand slip through the hourglass the bird-creature bellows and performs one almighty leap, spreads its wingspan out fully to the size of an ironing-board and raises its talons for a final claw straight to the heart — just as an equally desperate death-lunge from the fox-creature mirrors its leap, and the fox-creature rips one last chance across the bird’s exposed body. Darker blood suddenly, terminal, and the creatures lock together once more and dark smoke rises to envelop them, and death-throes echo up to the forest canopy, and by the time the sounds fade and the smoke clears there is little in the clearing but lumps of matted fur and a pile of dark smoking feathers.
The forest takes a moment of silence for these fallen things.
Gretchen, taking a few shuddering breaths, getting the courage to approach the bodies — or whatever’s left. When she does go to them, the sight is a puzzle as much as a shock: both creatures seem long decayed, hardly there at all. Their shredded flesh has darkened with a sticky clotted resin and their heads are sinking into themselves, the eye sockets shadowed and empty. The stench of old rot sits heavily over everything. It looks as if this battle was fought weeks ago, months: not seconds. Gretchen, standing over the scraps she’d swear were fighting to the death not a moment before. Gretchen, wondering what to do about this.
Perhaps she hears a sound. Or perhaps her body simply senses, the way bodies can, that she is in the presence of life, or at least something like it. Her attention swings to the ferns at the edge of the clearing.
The bird-thing was protecting something. Gretchen has seen creatures go on the defensive before, and there’s really only one thing that inspires such ferocity.
She peers through the fronds, then pushes them aside.
Among the dark bracken is a nest made from pieces of flaked slate. Possibly taken from roofs down in the village, she idly thinks, since tiles have been going missing lately. Most have been blaming the wind.
Within the nest sits a cluster of eggs, half a dozen, the size of goose eggs. A sickly pale grey: not the healthiest sight.
Gretchen reaches out a tentative hand and picks up one of the eggs. Beneath, lining the nest, is a bed of white moss, dry as bone.
The egg is hot in her hands. She holds it a moment, looking at it.
Almost imperceptibly, the egg is becoming cooler. Ah.
Gretchen, running through the trees, the half-dozen eggs wrapped in the skirt of her apron, twigs snapping beneath her feet, a side-leaning branch for one heart-stopping moment nearly tripping her over. She reaches the edge of the forest, runs over the grasses, through the garden, shoulder barges into the cottage, heads straight to the fireplace and dumps the eggs into the coals. In a rush she arranges them at the back and uses the poker to cover them over, adds a sprinkle of ash and makes a few sparky pushes with the bellows. Not at any point fully understanding why she’s doing any of this; knowing only that her instinct is to do it.
Gretchen, standing before the fireplace, the new lumpy arrangement safe for now in the glowing heat. Feeling calmer, sensing that she’s helped somehow.
Her godmother, suddenly, is standing beside her. Her voice is low and urgent: ‘Get rid of them.’
A sprinkle of panic goes through Gretchen, as if she’s been caught.
‘What, why? What do you mean?’ She resists the urge to put her hands on her hips, but the temptation to be defiant is there. This feels, already, like her business.
Her godmother shakes her head slowly. ‘They aren’t going to hatch into anything helpful. You should have left them where you found them.’
Gretchen describes the battle she witnessed, the creatures who died fighting over the eggs. It only makes her godmother reiterate: there are things that should not hatch. Gretchen sees her godmother’s point, nods in agreement. She should really get rid of the eggs. She knows this, she does know this.
Gretchen, as the days pass, keeping a corner of the fireplace covered over with ash, and occasionally touching the shells with the back of her fingers to check they’re still warm. Watching their greyness darken, and the hairline cracks appear.
And then, one afternoon — it’s spring, a lovely temperate spring day in the village, a festival day in fact, with bunting everywhere and music coming up from below — and Gretchen’s godmother is out, she’s been out all day, helping with the cake stall then masterminding the sack race — and Gretchen, kneeling by the fire, practically bending all the way over the ashes, hardly daring to blink never mind breathe. She sensed something, or perhaps she picked up a sound without knowing she’d heard it: she simply knew to be with the eggs. Gretchen, pushing the coals aside with the poker to get a proper look.
The eggs are so much darker now, some are nearly the same colour as the coals. They’re ready. And the cracks across them are thicker, and glowing red. Like veins of lava through the dark shells. Gretchen, entranced, leaning closer in.
The biggest egg has a web of fine cracks spreading out from a central point, and from within — lean in, listen, hear it — comes a slight but persistent tap, tap tap. The web of cracks grows more unstable and pieces of the shell fall away, a few at first and then, with a sudden sound, a clean sound like snapping bone, the shell cracks into two and a dark wet thing totters out.
Steam rises from within the broken remains of the egg: it was hot in there.
It takes a few steps, stops and cocks its head. Shakes itself slightly. Its long beak has an edge like a razor.
It already has purpose. Its dark grey body shines like rain on slate, and tiny eyes blaze within its bone-sharp head. For a moment it and Gretchen share a moment of silence, there in the fireplace. Then it takes a few more teetering steps towards her, and pushes its head against her leg. The feeling is sharp, damp, not exactly cold.
The other eggshells fall away too, and so half a dozen more are clustering silently around her. Gretchen, surrounded by these tiny things.
The steam has mostly drifted away and their bodies are drying out to reveal more of their shape. They are flintier than geese, with the folded skeletons of their wings like sharp elbows. They have quickly become confident on their thin legs that bend very oddly. Their beaks and talons are white, pure bone. As for their eyes: ancient eyes, red and yellow and jagged like lightning, a furious concentration that’s epochs old.
Gretchen, looking at the hatchlings, suddenly breaks from the spell. She bolts up and backs away: from there it’s an impasse, and Gretchen’s godmother comes home to find her like this, surrounded by these creatures that make no sound, Gretchen pressed against the far wall, kneeling absurdly on a stool, the hatchlings snuffling and pecking at the legs.
‘Get them away from me!’ she cries, looking up through a panicked, tear-sheeted face at the sight of her godmother in the doorway.
Her godmother’s face is surprised for a moment, then suddenly very weary. She drops the basket she’s been carrying (full of trinkets and flowers from the day’s festivities, forgotten now, unimportant trifles now, including a jar of actual trifle, it’s all such a terrible shame) — Gretchen’s godmother runs a hand across her face and says in a scratchy, tired voice: ‘I told you to get rid of them.’
Gretchen’s face is a rictus. ‘I — I didn’t think—’
‘I’ll say you didn’t. You had your merciful moment when you rescued them, but I told you. You kept them?’
Gretchen gestures desperately at the creatures, who are trying to hop up onto the chair. ‘What do I do?’
‘Come here first, quickly all in one go. Run and I’ll stop them.’
Gretchen dashes off the chair and runs the width of the cottage — the hatchlings follow her, their heads lowered for speed, their bodies rocking side to side as they run, a small stampede of stomping skeletal feet.
Gretchen’s godmother has picked up the broom. She wields it at the creatures. The hatchlings slow down and cluster together, eyeing it warily.
‘Knew it,’ says Gretchen’s godmother, with some satisfaction in her voice. ‘The broom always works. Look at that, they can’t stand it.’
‘They’re scared of brooms? Like a — normal goose?’ Gretchen had assumed rules like that wouldn’t apply.
‘A rake would work, the hoe, anything with a long handle.’
She holds the broom out further — the hatchlings move backwards as a group, ruffling their stony wings.
Her godmother’s expression is grimly etched. ‘Were you the first thing they saw?’
‘That explains it.’ Her eyes narrowing as she looks into Gretchen. ‘They’re not chasing you. They won’t attack you. I’m afraid they’re following you.’
Gretchen’s mouth moves a little as she admits to herself that she understands, has known the whole time. ‘They think I’m their mother.’
‘Its worse than that,’ says her godmother. ‘They’re right.’
Compromise must be struck: Gretchen cannot now lead them into the forest and set them loose, because they’ll simply follow her back.
‘Quickly — into the cellar.’
Her godmother opens the door and Gretchen runs in, and the hatchlings silently follow, their bone-feet tapping down the steps. Gretchen lets the creatures overtake her as they jump down, anticipating her own steps to the bottom, then she comes out. The door squeaks as she closes it behind her, and she locks it and strikes the bolt.
Gretchen, rubbing her face in something like relief, pictures again the bold stare of those red-yellow eyes. ‘What are we going to do?’
Her godmother picks up the forgotten basket of flowers, which has become helplessly crumpled. ‘Kill them.’
Gretchen, shaking her head. ‘I can’t do that.’
‘You’ve had your merciful moment,’ says her godmother. ‘But I’m not having those things living underneath this cottage.’
‘What do you want me to do, twist their necks?’
‘Ideally yes, exactly.’
‘I’m not doing that.’ Gretchen, sick at the very idea. Not that this is only squeamishness: she’s a country girl, she’s twisted necks before. But, ‘I just can’t.’
‘Then you’ll have to leave them down there: with no nourishment they’ll lose their energy, fade away, turn to dust. Then you can go in and sweep them out.’
Gretchen, mouth open, horrified. ‘That’s crueller than killing them now, isn’t it?’
‘Well, those are the options.’ Her godmother, hand on the door handle. ‘I’m going to pull up some carrots for dinner. Make the choice, and make your peace with it.’
When her godmother returns, Gretchen has chosen the war of attrition. The thought is too much, in that moment, of facing once again those skittering bodies with their blazing eyes. Her godmother nods, and they eat, and sleep to rise again and begin another day; and many days pass, the cellar an unspoken darkness below them.
Gretchen, taking tentative steps down into the cellar.
Her godmother is out, and the curiosity has become too great. Has it been long enough? Might they be ash already? Gretchen tells herself she wonders these things, not admitting to herself she knows it hasn’t been long enough, nowhere near.
The cellar is all darkness and cold air, and a sense of pure emptiness.
There is a tapping from a far corner, and a shape detaches from the shadows and lopes towards her. She can recognise the first to hatch since it is bigger than the others, and seems to be the leader. It runs to Gretchen, its talons audible on the flagstone floor, and the others follow quickly behind.
She kneels to look at them. The creature cocks its head and watches her, its eye getting brighter as her own vision adjusts. They don’t seem to be starving to death, although, Gretchen thinks, how would she tell? The creature taps its beak on the floor several times, and the tap echoes. It looks at her again and opens its beak: inside are rows of jagged teeth. Gretchen knows she should feel frightened, but she has never felt calmer.
‘What do you need?’
She looks for another moment into that red-hot eye, and suddenly knows the answer.
Gretchen, back upstairs, heart pounding, kneeling at the edge of the fireplace, shuffling some coals and ash into a tin tray, then carrying it down into the cellar.
She puts the tray beside her and watches the creatures. She half expects them to leap into the ash-bath and fritter around in there, taking comfort in the hot dryness of it. But they cluster together and back away, their feet dragging over the flagstones as if they would dig them up. Between clawing the ground and keeping together it’s clear that they’re nervous. Perhaps they don’t know what to do.
The biggest hatchling takes a few steps forwards, staring at Gretchen. She returns its look, forgetting the coldness of the stone floor on her knees, and waits until she sees something there, understands.
The knowledge of what it is she is about to do drops unbidden into her mind, which until this moment was fully taken up with the hatchling’s infinite eye.
Keeping its even stare, Gretchen reaches down and puts her hand onto one of the coals. She hears the faint hiss as it touches her bare skin but the pain is distant. She curls her fingers around it, picks it fully up. She reaches out, holding it before her.
Holding it out with a flat palm, of course; there’s no need to be reckless.
It comes closer with a click of bone on the cellar floor. The steps echo suddenly, as if this dark space stretched out for miles. She keeps her focus on the red-hot glare of its eye, and reaches out with her arm just the smallest amount further. A calm has descended within her. Everything is only this.
The hatchling takes another step closer and Gretchen’s sense of self curdles beneath the focus, and underneath its steady gaze she finds herself thinking, straight out and plainly, all the thoughts she usually hides, the thoughts she has to get through to get out into the day, the thoughts that put words to parts of herself she never admits to anyone. She doesn’t look away from the hatchling’s stare because the only other place to look is into her worst possible self, and to know the pain and the truth of who she is. She sees it anyway, knows herself fully. Such clarity.
The hatchling reaches down, vertebrae of its neck clicking beneath the sharp spines of its feathers, and takes the piece of coal from her hand. It speeds back to the group, where they drop it and peck it up together.
Gretchen stands on shaky legs, and exits the cellar to the sound of their bone-beaks pecking at the rocks.
Back upstairs, by the fire, making dinner by rote, and haunted — not by the eye of the hatchling, but by the things of her own the eye had revealed. No longer being in the darkness of the cellar helps, the real world with its soft ginger light and smell of garlic and rosemary and the feel of the worn rug goes towards putting some sense of distance between then and now. But Gretchen is not able to forget how it felt, who she had become, for that dreadful long moment down there in the dark.
She goes to the hatchlings again, not long afterwards. Couldn’t really say why. Perhaps it’s as simple as, once you’ve done it once…
Just one more time, she tells herself. To see.
(She doesn’t ask herself: to see what?)
They’re cleaning themselves, running their sharp beaks through their wings — always an impossible thing to witness, the human equivalent of snuffling about in your own shoulder blades. They pull out spiked feathers and toss them aside, to land with a few spots of gristle and blood. She holds out coals and they gather around her, pecking away. And she feels, again, her worst self coming up to meet her.
She goes again, it gets easier to go. At first she says to herself: ‘I think I’ll go to them.’
It could be an argument down in the village — an altercation over who owes what for spilling a vat of goat’s butter or something like that, the details are unimportant, and that’s what’s so unnerving at first — anything that causes emotion, anything at all, makes the thought descend into her mind and the decision is, in itself, calming: and soon she’s saying to herself: ‘I know I’ll go to them. I’m going to go home, to go to them.’ And the certainty is enough to lift her mood: never mind that the wording has changed, doesn’t imply choice as much as it used to, that as summer scorches the village and presses heavy air down onto everyone, her general state is one of waiting for the next time she’ll go to them. High emotion is, at first, the cause of a visit to the hatchlings — but soon she needn’t be upset or angry at all, sometimes she is calm, sometimes even happy, and in any case the thought descends: ‘I’m going to them.’ And Gretchen, opening the door to the darkness of the cellar and going straight down, taking the gaze of the hatchlings into her own, enveloped by the stillness as she feeds them, her worst thoughts gathering around her.
They’re getting bigger. The flinty down they wore as chicks has given way to their adult growth: long thin feathers like blades of slate. When they rub their bodies against her it is like being stroked with a wire brush. The first time the biggest hatchling lowers onto its haunches and lets her pick it up, her mind is taken over with such a calmness it is like getting into a bath of iced water. No, not a bath, too small: a clear lake, bigger than that, the sea. The hatchling snuggles its skull among its bony feathers as it sleeps and she knows her worst self as certainly as she’s ever known it, and the certainty is liberating, even as it’s terrible. When she leaves the cellar and the sound of their bone-talons scraping the flagstones, the sepia tones and herbal warmth of the cottage feels distant, the symptoms of a fake existence. The cellar is the truth.
On some level she knows the current situation is not, cannot be sustainable: they’re too big, they’re almost the size of swans now, the cellar surely can’t hold them.
But the hatchlings need her, Gretchen thinks. They need her to survive.
Autumn comes to the village, bringing chill and miserable drizzle. None of those golden autumnal days this year, no such luck, straight to winter. Chill in the air that soaks you instantly, and a bleak sky of unbudgeable clouds. The sun must be up there somewhere, pounding on them from above, but there’s no getting through clouds that heavy. It is dark until lunch and begins growing dark again just after lunch. Here, high at the edge of the forest, snow covers the garden, and long icicles hang from the roof.
And they’re suffering.
‘What is it?’
Gretchen, kneeling, as she does, by the cellar steps, and the hatchlings — although, no question they’re fully grown now, with feathers of delicate bone, the occasional red glow from within when they take on the heat of the coals — the hatchlings are keeping back from her, turning around each other, clawing at the ground. Groove-marks have been scratched deep into the flagstones.
They’re shivering uncontrollably.
Gretchen, kneeling, whispers: ‘What do you need?’
The smallest one suddenly sneezes. Its head shakes with a clatter of bone and the red pulse shudders within its body, and along its legs the skin begins to bubble. The others peck at the dark blood seeping through its tattered feathers. Gretchen, scrabbling up the stairs and pacing across the kitchen, knowing full well that something is wrong, that something is — finally — breaking, but unable to let herself see an answer.
From outside there is a loud explosive sound, as if glass has suddenly shattered.
She goes to the window just as, along the roof, another icicle explodes into bits that splash onto the snow, boiling it. Steam rises.
Gretchen, out in the garden, staring dumbfounded at this. Barefoot, having forgotten her shoes in the rush to get outside. Barely noticing the cold. Steam is still rising delicately from where the shards of ice landed.
Another explosion: a thick icicle popping into a shower of boiling water. Then, a hissing noise from the fence: the pitchfork that had been leaning against it has melted and reset itself, and now it ends in a puddle with sharp spikes like talons.
Gretchen, feeling the world shake and shudder around her —
A voice calls out:
Gretchen, mouth open, spins back to follow the sound. ‘What did you say?’
The cottage door is open. Gretchen’s godmother is leaning against the lintel. Then — pop! — another icicle bursts and shatters, and they both duck.
Rising again, her godmother says: ‘Come inside and I’ll explain.’
Inside, with an onion-stewing scent from the cauldron, dried thyme giving its sweetness hanging from the ceiling beams, things almost seem normal. The only sign that something is wrong is the way the horseshoe over the door has begun dripping. Gretchen’s godmother gestures for her to sit at the table.
‘They shouldn’t be here,’ she says, placing a bowl of stew down before her. ‘This place is wrong for them.’
‘We’ve always known that, haven’t we? I’m not hungry.’ Gretchen pushes the bowl away.
‘I know you’re not, but your body is.’
‘I can’t. It smells of soil.’
‘Nothing wrong with soil. Perfectly nutritious for worms.’
‘Do I look like a worm to you?’
Gretchen’s godmother looks at her carefully. ‘I don’t know any worms in the state you’re in, no.’
Gretchen puts her head in her hands. ‘I don’t want it.’
Since she’s been regularly going down to the cellar, she doesn’t really taste anything, and when she does eat there’s no joy in it. It’s just not as important as it used to be.
‘Come with me.’ Her godmother rises, goes to the window, pulls the curtain aside. For a moment they look out together at the herb garden. Suddenly the sage bush begins to go brown and curl at the edges.
‘They’re incapable of staying here,’ says Gretchen’s godmother, keeping her eye on the sage bush, which is now emitting curls of grey smoke. ‘They’re creatures of heat. They’re not going to last the winter.’
‘So what do I do?’
Her godmother sighs. ‘You shouldn’t have to do this. I don’t even know if you can. But I don’t know how else they might….’ her voice fades off.
The sage bush has turned into a small pile of blackened twigs.
Her godmother closes her eyes and speaks quickly, as if getting it all out at once.
‘They’re only meant to be here half the time,’ she says. ‘When they hatch they don’t know that. The first time they make the journey it’s their mother who shows them the way. Afterwards they know the route, and come and go by themselves.’
Gretchen pictures the hatchlings huddled together in the cold cellar, waiting for their mother to lead the way for them. She feels herself knowing the answer, asks anyway. ‘Where do they go?’
‘South, of course.’ Her godmother points to the ground. ‘Straight down.’
Gretchen, deciding, knowing ‘deciding’ isn’t accurate: it has to happen, even though it can’t. Even though the thought of the hatchlings going away leaves her empty, restless, itchy. They’re making her world unliveable, but who is she without them? However, needs must: in the cottage, the rug is curling inwards at the edges. The bricks of the fireplace are starting to warp, and the cauldron is merging molten metal with the food inside. The whole cottage is going to burn in on itself, warped by the hatchlings’ shaking inability to cope, an increasingly hostile environment causing their very existence to flail and shudder. One more night with those creatures alive down there is too many. Gretchen knows this. So. Gretchen, back in the forest. The hatchlings clustering around her legs.
So quickly? Well, yes: the journey from the cottage had been surprisingly easy. She’d opened the cellar door, stood in the doorway, looked down into the darkness, waited. Made a series of low cooing sounds she didn’t realise she knew. The creatures had hopped up the stairs, and at the first sight of them — their plump grey bodies bristling with feathers of bone and shadow — she had turned and passed through the disfigured kitchen, out into the garden. She had been expecting a moment of tentativeness, the creatures standing in the door unsure of the change in atmosphere. But they had followed her directly — the biggest first as always, the rest close behind. Gretchen kept her head low and walked into the forest, followed the path until there was no path, until she reached the point where she now stands, in the clearing with the cracked stump, the place she found the nest. Where her godmother had told her to begin.
A dreary autumnal dusk, the shadows heavy, the ferns brown and crisped. Around her feet putter the hatchlings, leaving scorch marks on the papery leaves.
Gretchen closes her eyes and remembers what her godmother told her.
She opens her eyes again.
The forest looks the same. The air is totally still, and all is silence.
‘Right. Come along,’ whispers Gretchen. ‘And I will… show you the way.’
She takes a step, and the hatchlings follow.
The forest passes in silence. The light goes quickly, and soon the whole world is gloom, too dark even for shadows. There is only, now and again, the reddish glow of the hatchlings’ eyes.
Her steps make no noise. She can see nothing, feel nothing —
Actually, no, there is something here. What she can feel is —
Clarity. It’s the same as when she fed the hatchlings down in the cellar, but bigger, so expansive it’s enveloping everything, no longer a secret, but out in the air of the world. She is joined on the journey by her worst self, that terrible shadow version of Gretchen no-one else knows.
The air around her is growing hotter.
The steps of the hatchlings make no sound. Gretchen keeps walking.
The humidity becomes difficult to move through. Sweat makes Gretchen itch, bothers her skin, slows her pace and makes her breathing harder. Her ribs ache with the weight of the air. Her worst thoughts press in more, and urgently. Her worst self is closing in on her mind, making a claim to the space. A very convincing claim —
— and she knows, she knows, that if she could hear them, the worst thoughts of others are here too, that she is travelling through a dense mess of the despair and rage and hopelessness and fear and loneliness and spite and sheer unbearable things that hide in uncountable others — that this is a space to collapse into, to fall into and keep falling through, a space that will always be willing to reach up to meet her —
Suddenly, behind her, the hatchlings take flight.
Gretchen stops, too surprised to keep moving as they beat their wings and soar over her, flying through this impossible air. (Although that had been her godmother’s biggest stipulation: you must keep moving.) She hasn’t seen this before. She didn’t teach them this.
The hatchlings fly in a raggedy formation, their wings making no sound. All the hidden thoughts create the updraft, the channels and currents for them to manoeuvre — the hatchlings overtake Gretchen and land neatly onto the pitch-black lake in front of her she hadn’t even known was there.
The surface makes perfect ripples like oil, that spread and fade to nothing just before they reach her feet.
The hatchlings ruffle their heads through their feathers and take a few trial kicks in the dark water. They cluster together and swim about. One drags a hole with its foot in the surface of the water, which reveals a dull red glow beneath like lava or an open wound. Then the surface closes itself over again, an eye going back to sleep.
Her godmother had told her: when you get them there, come back immediately.
Gretchen takes a step backwards and the branch comes from nowhere — a branch or perhaps a bone or who knows what it is, but it comes from nowhere and smacks her in the back of the leg — and she stumbles, turning as she falls, and her weight lands oddly on one side and pain shoots through her ankle. She closes her eyes and it’s no darker than with them open, and she’s lost her balance, and she’d almost done it, she’d come so close, and now she’s falling through this darkness —
— Gretchen, landing heavily on the dirt-packed floor of the forest she knows. Taking a few exhausted breaths before realising the air is no longer heavy. That, in fact, breathing is coming easier than it has for a very long time.
She looks up to see, ahead of her, the light of a peaceful dawn, the sky pink and promising through the trees.
It is only a matter of a few steps, limping on her sore ankle, to be out of the forest. From here she can see down to the village, and there is a temporary break in the clouds, and smoke rises peacefully from the chimneys, and the trees stand politely around the lake, and the morning sun shines on the flatness of the water.
Rose Biggin is a writer and theatre artist based in London. Her short fiction has been published by Jurassic London, Abaddon Books, Betwixt Magazine, The Cafe Irreal, Mango, NewCon Press, Brigids Gate Press and Egaeus Press, won the Jon Meyers Prize for Gothic Fiction (Dark Sire Literary Journal), and made the recommended reading list for Best of British Fantasy. She is the author of Immersive Theatre & Audience Experience (Palgrave) and Shakespearean novel Wild Time (Surface Press).
photo by Yana Gorbunova (via unsplash)