In her dream, Gerda sings a lullaby to her daughter. Hannah’s head is cradled safe in her arms, and the tiny part of her that knows she is asleep wonders why she cries during the day, when everything is as it should be. Then, she finishes the last line of the song, don’t leave me , and Gerda snaps awake and remembers.
She rolls over in bed, groggy but no longer having any hope of sleep. The gray morning light washes over her iPhone Acht, once a bragging right, which displays the time as 7:00 sharp. Despite having disabled her alarm long ago, Gerda’s circadian rhythms still align perfectly to her daughter’s old school schedule. Instead of getting up, she stares at the ceiling. Once, she would have rushed out of bed. There would be a school dropoff, then Starbucks with the ladies, yoga, and an afternoon of baking cookies for the next bake sale. Gerda has none of that now; instead, she has the ratty quilt she sleeps under and an empty room in her house. She can’t bake anymore. She has a thing about ovens.
Later that afternoon, Gerda finally drags herself out of bed and plod down the path to that familiar place, the pickup point at school. She used to take the shortcut, the one that led by the jail. Now, she sees Hansel and Gretel there every time she passes, bringing gifts and pleasant conversation to Hannah’s murderer. It used to fill her with rage, that the town so quickly forgot her best friend in favor of a monster. Now, Gerda would welcome rage as a distraction from the deep emptiness inside her. She hears the witch is “in recovery.” She only wishes she, too, could recover.
“Hey, Gerda,” the PTA moms greet unanimously as Gerda approaches. She hears in their tone the same awkwardness they used to aim at Brunhilda, and gives a slight nod in answer. Gerda can’t blame them for their standoffishness toward her. Tragedy, in the PTA, is somebody else’s problem. It’s those poor souls and did you hear and the topic of the next meeting. It isn’t in their midst, tearing up their own from the inside out. There’s idle conversation, and Gerda, once the alpha of every conversation, remains at the outskirts, only interjecting with “wow” or “mm-hmm” when one of the moms mentions another one of her child’s amazing feats. She thinks of Ivy leagues, and her stomach clenches.
“Remember, ladies, meeting at my house tonight at six,” and the ladies disperse, children in tow. Gerda is not the one who says it. Claire, of all people, has taken over as the de facto president of the PTA. She speaks in calm, quiet tones at every meeting to mention who went to whose funeral, or which flowers are in vogue to place on a grave. There are no flowers on Hannah’s grave, only leafy plants that Gerda planted on a day she managed to get out of bed before three. She couldn’t force herself to the cemetery every day, so she trusted in the rain and the moon to help the flowers grow. They were supposed to be pink. Hannah’s favorite. They never bloomed.
Gerda turns away to leave the school, childless. She startles when she feels an unexpected tap on her shoulder, and whirls around, ready for an ambush, but it’s only Hertha.
“Gerda,” Hertha begins. “Please forgive me if this isn’t my place, but I know of an amazing therapy group downtown specifically for the parents of the… the victims. I don’t want to overstep my bounds, but if you want more details, I can give you the brochure, and maybe…” She trails off. It feels… not good exactly, but right , for Hertha to be so wary of approaching Gerda with this. It’s a remnant of when anybody meddling in Gerda’s business would receive a royal PTA mom smackdown. Gerda almost smiles at the memory. It follows easily from this to slip into her old role.
“Well, I don’t get downtown very often anymore- don’t you know all the absolute best businesses are those quaint little local ones in the country?- but I’ll certainly keep it in mind. Have a good afternoon, ja ?”
Gerda walks away, ignoring Hertha’s meek “do you want the brochure?” behind her, and hurries down the road. She, of course, will not be attending therapy. She’s Gerda, and she’s strong, and she definitely doesn’t need any news of her going to therapy reaching the other moms. Her reputation would be destroyed. Gerda looks up from her heels clicking on the cobblestones, sees a building just down the road from her, and gasps aloud involuntarily. In her haste to escape Hertha’s misguided attempts at help, she has taken the wrong road home. Now, Gerda stands faced head on by the jail. Inside, there is a killer. A monster, all big eyes and claws and savage hunger for her baby. Her angel, her Hannah. Before Gerda knows it, she has sunk to the ground, on her knees in the middle of the road, just staring at the gray jail with wide eyes and a pale face. She does not cry, just looks, a white-hot buzzing filling her stomach. Then there is a shaking, and a deafening noise that approaches too quickly for her to snap out of her daze, and then there is a blackness.
She wakes with an unfamiliar face far too close to her own, and shrieks. The face quickly recoils, and as it retreats, Gerda recognizes it as the woodcutter’s. Former woodcutter, that is. She shifts her gaze behind him and sees only the tops of trees and a bright blue sky.
“Ralph, right?” she asks tentatively, her voice coming out hoarse and even froggier than usual.
“Thank god you’re awake!” Ralph exclaims. “I almost hit you. Are you hurt at all?” He helps her sit up slowly, and to her left, Gerda sees a small carriage with a beautiful horse. She ignores it, refuses to consider how he bought it, and takes a deep breath as she analyzes her physical wellbeing.
“No, thank you… I’m alright. Thank you for stopping, I’ll be on my way.” The words rush out of her mouth, stumbling over each other through their polite veneer. She tries to get up, but her balance hasn’t quite returned to her, and she ends up sitting right back down on the cobblestones.
Ralph shoots a darting glance over his shoulder, and the jail comes back into focus. Gerda shuts her eyes tight for a count of three, then opens them to find Ralph peering into her eyes.
“I can’t imagine the pain you’re in,” Ralph says lowly. “But I can come close. For a while, I thought my children were gone too.”
But they’re not. Your children are safe and sound, and you’re all rich, Gerda wants to spit right into his bearded face, but doesn’t. Instead, she says “Thank you for your sympathy” tightly, and gets to her feet. This time, her legs are wobbly, but they manage to bear her weight, and she turns to go. That familiar fight or flight panic sets in when she feels a hand on her shoulder, but just like before, it’s only someone trying and failing to help.
“Look,” says Ralph, and takes a deep breath. “When I was lost and didn’t know what to do, there was someone there to guide me. They helped me figure out what path to take. After that, I made a promise to myself. If there were ever someone I saw who needed help, I would do what they did for me all those years ago, and help them find their path. The moon told me to look for signs in my life, Gerda. You need to do the same, and I think that if you do, you can find peace. Here,” and he presses a shiny red credit card into her hand, “I have plenty more.”
Gerda is too shocked to force Ralph to take the card back until he has already climbed back up into his carriage and urged the horse forward. She stands and watches its wheels kick up dust until the carriage, and Ralph, disappear around a bend. Her hands tremble, and the credit card falls to the ground. The moon.
Gerda knows the moon. She thought… she thought she was the only one who knew the moon. It was her own little fantasy, singing up to the moon at night. She sang words of wisdom that came into her head unbidden, alone in her room when Hannah was asleep, gazing out her bedroom window as its white light shone through onto her face. Gerda had told Hannah the moon would always guide her, and as she sang late at night, she had hoped the words she sang would somehow reach Hannah as she needed them. She remembers that night, years ago. Follow the light, and look for signs in your life.
Gerda hasn’t sung since she lost Hannah.
With sudden resolve, she bends down, uses her long nails to pick the card up from the stones at her feet, and turns around sharply. She isn’t going home, not anymore. Gerda walks back down the road, past the school, and ends up downtown.
Gerda leaves the therapy group that night feeling full. She hadn’t talked, not feeling ready, but had sat and listened as a woman talked about her son, Moritz, and the braces he had been fitted for that he would never get to wear. For the first time since the tragedy, she had felt like she wasn’t alone. It gives her unprecedented courage, and as she walks, she looks up to the darkening night sky. The moon is beginning to rise over the dark treetops, surrounded by tiny stars. A warm breeze blows a lock of red hair into Gerda’s face, and she brushes it away. The moon is full tonight. Before she knows it, Gerda opens her mouth, and a clear, high melody comes forth.
Use your heart as a compass to take you somewhere new, to a life you’ve always dreamt of. The only way out is through.
As the last note fades into the chirping of the crickets and rough calls of the night birds, Gerda makes a decision, or rather, her feet do. She turns down a path into the woods. It’s dark here in the forest, but the moonbeams light her way, illuminating the packed earth beneath her feet and lilies of the valley growing around her. Gerda reaches the cemetery on light feet, and as if sent by a higher power, a ray of moonlight shines down upon her daughter’s grave, in the center of the clearing.
The headstone is covered entirely by pink flowers.