* * *
When she was little, her mother would call her in before bedtime and tell her stories about the evils of the world. Not all of these tales came from the Bible, but most were about monsters and men with sharp claws or greedy hands.
Mother never warned of the women.
There are women in the forest.
She waits all night alone by her candlelight. It is always night here, and the candle is burning, but not her. Not yet.
"The world is filled with mysterious things," the older nurse had told her when she first came here to work.
It struck her as strange for someone caring for the sick and deranged to speak of such things. Dangerous, perhaps, to talk of the sort of things that their patients might imagine.
The older she gets, the more mysteries she discovers. There are many things that lurk within the woods, but very few answers. She should know. She's spent so much of her time there.
The roots grow thick and treacherous. Somehow she finds the path is more tangled at night, overgrown and crowded. Pressed in from all sides, so that she can hardly breathe.
She's not certain that she still needs to anyway, but it's good practice to keep it up.
In and out, up and down. Go slower, go steady, and you won't lose your way in the dark. Follow the light from the stars and that glowing something up ahead.
A candle or a woman. She isn't certain.
They both flicker and shift in the glow of the night.
She wonders, if she were to scream loud enough, would the heavens hear her?
Is there anyone left to hear anything?
She wonders sometimes if the trees themselves would cry out.
But it is silent in the forest.
There was a time when the world seemed vast and frightening, but also pleasant. Like a present to be unwrapped or whatever lies hidden beneath the hem of a skirt.
It's all much smaller now, but darker too. The candle burns on, but the light seems to have grown thin. Can that happen? Can the quality of something change with time, even though it appears to be the same in every other aspect?
She moves her fingers closer to the licking of the flame; she can still feel the burning.
It is still there, and so is she.
Her fingers grasp along the edges of her table -- twitching quickly, twisting sharply -- and she wonders if the cause is the sound of the clock chiming.
Her blood runs cold, but at least it is still running.
Blood can flow so warm and fast, thick as a curtain drawn over someone's eyes tucked away in bed, never to wake again.
There are monsters in the forest, yes, but on the doorstep too.
* * *
Like a wild thing that wants to run free.
Of course it isn't moving. A house doesn't move. But still, the sound can be unsettling.
She leaves a trail of salt at the doorway to keep corruption out. She is very precise in all these things. She learned it from her time in the TB ward. Cleanliness is not the only thing.
She takes care in all the most minute details. Each tea spoon rests carefully all in a row, cups stacked at alternating angles.
But the wood groans and she feels it, even in her bones. Maybe it is from the cold wind outside her door. Maybe something else.
She checks the trail of salt again, just once. It has not moved.
Not a single grain.
There had been a man once. Strong and tall, with sunlight in his hair.
He threaded his fingers in her own and led her down the dark and winding path inside the wood until they'd nearly lost their way. When she looked again, he had gone.
Had he ever been at all?
There is no one now.
Just her and the dark, and so many cups of tea.
She has enough to go around, should her patience ever return.
Her patients too.
Something moves just outside the window, shifting in the night. An owl perhaps, or something else moving through the forest.
There are animals, they say, that can find their way by night from memory. They know their homes, the places they belong, and return to them without ever finding the path with their eye.
As if there is a way to know your place so clearly. To have a place to call your own.
There have been no wolves in these woods for many years.
The last of them were hunted down and left scattered over the earth. They inspected the entrails and said it would be an early harvest. The women picked and pecked over every inch of flesh, squinting at the sky as though there might be rain.
And then there was.
That howling sound must be the cold wind blowing, but with enough warm tea you can forget or forgive nearly anything.
It cheered the patients every time, even the most stubborn among them. Add some sugar or honey if you like, it goes down sweeter, but be careful with the milk.
The house doesn't move. It cannot.
She knows that, of course.
But then why do the tea cups rattle so, if there is nothing there to shake them?
It was one of the younger girls who first showed her the way to identify the spirits.
Such nearly pagan practices would have been forbidden in her home as a child, but she has learned better now. You must sometimes become a little something of the thing you wish to destroy.
Now she checks at every mirror. She tosses salt and draws in careful lines. She has always been careful.
She has always been precise.
It's not as if every spirit is evil. Some of them are sent to guide you, like an animal on the trail of a scent, winding its way home in the dark.
But there is nothing (no one) in the mirror but herself.
Those mournful pathetic eyes make her want to smash it all. She'd like to gouge out that pretty face and sink her hands into a thousand shards of shattered glass, scooping broken tea cups up by the handful.
Instead she sits. She waits.
When morning comes again, she's certain that her heart will settle. It is only the darkness that tricks her mind so.
The house cannot move. And the sun will have to return.
* * *
Not just the beds, but her heart as well. That gaping cavern in her chest. Like water flowing through her cupped hands, she cannot seem to make the feelings stick.
But she fills them both up anyway, the best she can.
The bathtubs must be kept tended. She can't remember when they were last without water, which means they ought to be kept precisely so. Perhaps the rest have all just stepped out to wait for the water to be made warm again; they might return at any moment.
When they do, she will be ready.
They used to sing songs together, to give the patients cheer. One of the older nurses could strum a few chords and the newest girl would sing. She was a pretty thing, with hair that slipped around at the back of her ear in delicate curls.
Her voice lifted high and filled up every empty part of them.
She sang songs about the Lord and how His eyes would shine upon you. She sang about never being alone, not truly, no matter how dark or lonely you may become.
They were pretty tunes, but she can't remember any of them now, not a word, nor could she even hum a line.
Pretty songs with far more beautiful lies.
Stiff sheets and stiff fingers, stiff black blood dried beneath her nails. They are chipped and so is the wood grain of the table.
She traces patterns to read the signs. She hangs her shirt on the line just to pass the time.
There isn't any sun to dry it, but the minutes must still be moving, surely.
Time can't have stopped completely.
There is no stopping certain things in life, and one of them is death.
That is the greatest certainty.
The girl with the gentle curls died on a Tuesday. With thin, drawn lips and trembling hands, she choked on her own blood as she coughed and coughed, staining the sheets where she'd slept.
Her last strained breath rattled like the wind rocks through the trees in the wood. It was mournful and low, like you could hear the spirit leaving her, run off to somewhere far better.
Take me with you, she had wanted to say. Please.
But there was no one left to answer.
The sheets she'd slept in were covered in blood. She could not bear to look at it for days.
Try as she might, it would not come out, although she scrubbed until her flesh grew red and angry like the twisted feeling in the pit of her stomach, sharp like her teeth gnawing at her own tongue. Trying not to scream.
When she had been younger, the world seemed an overwhelming place. Not just because of the women and wolves, but something greater too. As many pretty songs as there were about His love, there was whatever its opposite was as well.
Sometimes she was afraid that she had drawn it down upon her just by breathing too loudly, thinking too fast. Speaking too plainly.
She had been a clumsy girl, often forgetful and wrong-footed in every way.
Her father had threatened to beat it out of her, but her mother had placed a hand to her brow and prayed her imperfections away.
She arranges everything carefully now, row by row and line by line. She knows the which and why of every way. She keeps track of all her travels and makes note of every footfall.
She won't be caught out of step now.
She can't be caught at all if there is no one in the woods to find her.
Because that sound in the distance must only be the wind or else her imagination.
Those golden curls are under the ground, along with the rest.
The shadow over the doorway must only be a crow, come looking for meager crawling things to feast upon. She watches as it tears the flesh and feels something inside of her stirring.
Her fingers jerk quickly, just the once, and then they're still again.
It's only an animal.
Keep at it long enough, and the blood is bound to wash away. Gone like everything else, just as it ought to be.
Pour it down the sink and pretend not to notice the stink.
There's an aching in her shoulder, which is a nice reminder she's alive. She doesn't remember how it came to be.
She's woken up in somewhere else again, which is happening more and more. She has a certain sort of vivid memory of another woman, with pale hands and wide eyes looking back at her through a window.
But there is nothing and no one, so it must have been a dream.
If not for the aching in her shoulder, the way her back feels twisted and sore, she might really believe that were true.
* * *
She does not wish to have to remind herself of such things, because only a fool would consider any other possibility. She has never been foolish. Come the end of days, there will be a rapture, and all good Christian women will be lifted up, their burdens taken from them.
She knows this to be true. How could the world have stopped if she is still here?
How can life have ended if her own heart still beats?
And she is certain that it must. She sees her breath fog against the glass of the mirror when she tries to laugh, but only cries instead.
She might be embarrassed if there was anyone else left alive on all the earth to hear her.
There is something causing a disturbance in the woods.
It is such a relief in its way, compared to the frequent disturbances in her own house. A forest is meant to be a wild and unkept thing. It is natural that it should have so much of nature in it, but that stops precisely at the doorway.
She keeps her Bible handy although she cannot bear to lift it now. There are too many pretty stories there of women and girls given happy endings to their lives.
Too many stories given end at all.
She envies that, she knows. Their resolve but also resolution.
She remembers mother saying that envy was a sin, but wonders who could worry over sin that now lives in Hell.
This cannot be Hell; it does not hurt quite enough.
Something screams in the night.
It must have been a bird.
Her eyes scan the edge of the woods, desperate for a sign of life. Somewhere at the edge of her world, she hears a bell chime like a distant call to arms.
It's the saddest sound she's ever heard and once again, with no one to see or hear (to care at all), she weeps.
She cannot bear the ends of things. Not just this empty blackness here at the edge of time, vast and dark, but the stories that have endings too.
Perhaps these are two very different things.
She pulls out the middles of her favorite stories and pins them to her wall like the silken wings of butterflies, caught up in mid-flight.
They cannot get away.
This time it was not an owl, but a girl. She is certain.
Owls do not have fingertips to reach with, although this one did take flight. She bolted through the woods and crammed herself between the slats of the iron gate.
No matter how much she throws herself into the metal or pulls against the chain, she cannot reach the other side. She cannot get to the girl again, who had certainly been real.
She must have been.
Real, and not a mirror, because when she had looked into her pretty face she had not wanted to cave it in quite so much. Not like her own.
This cannot be anything but Hell; it hurts to even breathe.
* * *
Most devoted and trusted of nearly anyone on staff.
Lords or Ladies in need of a special sort of care could be expected to receive treatment with respect and dignity, of course, but also discretion. Only girls who knew how to keep their mouths shut could be trusted with certain secrets.
She was thought too quiet and afraid to barely lift her head, let alone speak a word out of turn. They thought a lot of things of her, she knows.
None of them were kind.
Righteousness is a long road in the dark. The only light to keep your path is the one forged by the burning from within.
It's a soul, isn't it.
That's what they call the light behind the eyes, the capacity to care and think.
She still has one of those, doesn't she?
She tries to remember the taste of things other than sweat and tears. Most people do not have to try so hard, she thinks.
Most people have to eat.
She cannot remember the last time food passed her lips, or anything else.
She cannot remember a great many things.
She has kissed someone, she thinks. Sometime. And it had tasted sweet and good, although she was never certain she was either of those things herself.
Now she only tastes something sharp and slick like copper wire on her tongue. It must be blood.
Or something else.
And she chokes, something dark and angry rattling inside, but there is no blood to stain her sheets.
She could make them all pay, one day. Those people who would whisper. The sinners who tried to trip her along her path.
It would be easy, she had thought.
She had never considered how else it might be. How lonely.
* * *
It is so hard to leave this chair.
Sometimes the chair moves, not on its own precisely, but with more energy than she feels in her own chest. It can be nice, she thinks, to have something care again.
She remembers something of what that had been like.
Even further in the dark, beyond the chiming of the bell, she hears a woman calling, who throbs with thunder and light. She is the storm that could end the night.
If the house will not rise up and take her there, perhaps she should run to it herself.
She would, she thinks, if she knew the way. She would travel across the vastness of the night sky, picking her way among the stars, hands bleeding and torn, to grovel at the feet of anyone who knew how to set the world right side up again.
However it might be done.
There are no more wolves in these woods, but there still may be things with sharp teeth and quick eyes.
They might somehow cross the sanctified threshold, kept safe by her salt and her favorite passages of middle parts, and tear her limb from limb, middle from beginning, and leave a trail for the owl girl to follow through the dark.
That way one of them might find a home.
You need something (someone) to follow back if you're ever going to find your own end or new beginning.
But for now, she sits.
With pale, trembling hands holding cups of tea, one after the other, she waits. Sometimes with sugar or honey (to help it go down sweeter), she sips each one with a quiet resolution.
She waits for the time that the girl might return.
Now she will be ready. She will give the girl a cup of tea (no milk), and offer up her own entrails to be used for greater purpose. Spread them out on the land, squint up at the sky, and ask about the harvest.
See if it brings the sun again.
A perfectly sensible resolution, she thinks, between two reasonable adults.
But perhaps, at first, it'll just be the tea.
That might be alright.
* * *