They searched for weeks, but never found her.
It was decided without words that “weeks” was the appropriate unit of time. Some girls are “weeks” and some girls are “days.” And some girls are missing posters that get seen by too few and ignored by too many.
But she had done so well. Tried so hard. She followed all the rules that girls were meant to follow. She deserved weeks.
Her father cried. “I just want to bury my daughter.” Her mother was silent behind him. She held him up like a beam holds a home.
He couldn’t fathom how something like this could happen, but her mother could. In her own youth, she knew it could happen to her. She felt at all times the cool hand on the back of her neck, sharp claws pressed against soft skin, waiting for her moment of weakness, waiting for her to end her watch. If at any moment she relaxed, if at any moment she believed herself to be safe, at peace, she knew it would strike, plunging her into a lifelong winter.
And on the day her daughter was born, when she first held her baby, screaming and bloody, she saw a silvered hand of ice wrap itself around her child’s neck.
A curse passed from mothers to daughters.
• • • •
It was the twilight of summer when the girl was last seen.
She wasn’t that girl. She knew the kind of troubles that followed that girl, and made certain they would never find her. Home before dark. Chaperones for dates. Never off in the woods. Never alone.
But he’d had a question to ask her.
“Not here,” he’d said. Not in the crowded, dirty plaza at the center of town, currently overflowing with market-goers, a deer carcass buzzing with flies hanging in the butcher’s stall just feet from where they stood. “I want to take you somewhere else. Somewhere special.”
They walked through the plaza, his hand in hers, past the stalls swollen with summer fruits, overripe, pungent. She choked on their sickly sweet scent, yet she was grateful that they overpowered the smell of clotting blood that wafted from the butcher as he dismembered a small animal. Somewhere special. The phrase made her heart go light, and she found herself smiling as they passed the butcher, his cleaver swinging down and severing a lamb’s spine.
He led her to the edge of their small city, past it. Weather-worn stone buildings built by father’s-fathers gave way to small farms, and still they walked, toward the woods, toward the tall mountain.
Never off in the woods.
Except, she wasn’t alone, was she? She was with him. And she knew him. Didn’t she?
The city was lost behind a curtain of trees. Ahead, the old keep emerged, settled in the side of the mountain. Once a safe place in times of war, it had begun to crumble and fall apart after centuries of abandonment.
Only now it was not so abandoned. There was a thick blanket on the ground, and a basket of food and wine, soft cheeses and sweet fruits and bread baked just that morning. She’d never had wine, hadn’t been allowed when she was young. As she grew, she learned why it had been forbidden, of the ways the drink can change a person, how it can be an undoing.
But that warning was for boys who were not this boy. It was for the boys she did not know. And she knew this boy.
She took the bread and the wine. He would ask what he wanted in his own time, and she decided she could wait.
• • • •
There are many ways to lose a girl. This is simply one of them.
• • • •
When he finally asked her, it wasn’t the question she’d been waiting for.
He had been kissing her as they sat in the mountaintop ruins, holding her face so gently at first, becoming more insistent as they continued, more hungry. His hands reached, moving in ways she understood but couldn’t explain. When his lips crept along her jawline and settled at her ear, he whispered his desire.
Her stomach twisted for a moment, fearful, but she pushed that aside. Her first thought was to flee, but she didn’t know why. This boy was good. She knew this boy.
She said she didn’t want to. Not now. Not like this.
But the blanket beneath them was so soft. The forest around them so still and so beautiful. Everything was perfect. She was perfect. They were perfect.
She stood, and the wine in her belly followed shortly after, making her stumble. Too much wine. She wasn’t that girl.
He grabbed her wrist and held firm, standing when she tried to pull away. She strained against him, pleading for him to let her go. He insisted he wouldn’t hurt her. The pain shooting up her arm said otherwise.
They struggled. He, to calm her down, to make certain when they reached the bottom of the mountain their stories would be the same. She, to get away, to simply get away.
His grip was tight, but her wrist was small. She pulled free.
He was faster.
He grabbed her. Caught her shoulder. Spun her around.
• • • •
He did nothing wrong.
That is what he whispers to himself each night.
• • • •
Her head was light and her body was a feather on the wind. There was no earth below her. Above was a foreign sky, stars glowing bright in all the wrong places.
Falling became something like being carried on a warm sea. The knot in her gut, brought on by the primal fear of the earth working to pull a body down, slowly began to release. Arms wrapped around her, and for a moment she remembered his touch, the way he pressed her to the ground. But this was gentle, like her mother’s embrace when she had been small. Two arms, then four, more, caging her in compassion.
She was enveloped in a warmth that reached through her skin and traced the lines of her bones, and for the first time she realized how cold she had been. A sharp pain in her neck suddenly released, and she gasped, terrified that something in her had broken, that the stabbing anxiety she carried in her heart had finally been realized. She held her breath and trembled.
Peace can be a terror when you have never known it before.
Moments passed, and nothing happened, and nothing happened. The safety promised by the embrace blurred the line between the body and the spirit, and her heart and her soul both ached as one. She could scream now, and she did, relentlessly, wordlessly, a cry of hurt and terror, of discovery and loss.
What a waste it all had been. She had done everything expected of her, she had stayed so cautiously within the borders of girlhood, of propriety, of safety. All for nothing.
In the end, there was just no way to be careful enough.
• • • •
He ran from the mountain, erasing all evidence that he had ever been there. He left her body in the ruins, cold and alone.
When he returned to town, he said nothing. He bathed himself in scalding water and went to sleep and dreamed of darkness.
The search began that night.
In the morning, he searched with them. Where could his love have gone? How can she just vanish?
“You were the last person to see her.”
I didn’t do anything. He nearly said. He didn’t say. Too much guilt in that phrase. Too much guilt in his heart.
They had gone walking, he told her parents, and then she remembered she had to take care of the goats, and she had to rush home. That was the story he told. He didn’t know where she was. He wished he did.
By morning, the entire town was searching for her. Such a good girl. Such a sweet girl. She always kept her face clean. Always kept her clothes mended. Her hair was so beautiful. Lips like spring blossoms. Eyes like the sun.
They never thought to go into the mountain. They never thought she would go so far on her own. And they were right. She wouldn’t have. Not alone. Not without someone she trusted.
He could only agree, too strangled by guilt to say more.
• • • •
Time moved like in a dream. Days lasted years and months lasted days. She found herself tasting colors and seeing emotions, and she could understand the words whispered by the rain and the desires of the sun and the longing of the moon. She was everywhere and everything, expansive and great and trembling with the enormity of it. The star inside her had burst with light and was forming a new universe.
And then she was reduced back to a single point in the darkness, cold and alone.
There was ground beneath her now. She brought herself slowly to her feet and looked around, but there was little to see. A simple cave, dimly lit by some unknown source, the walls a smudge of grey stone. As if she had never hit the ground, but had simply slipped through the mountain and arrived here.
The cave grew brighter, and she turned around, forced to shield her eyes when she faced the light. When she lowered her arm, a figure stood before her, a caricature of a human body. The limbs too long, arms branching into fingers that curled and stretched like dead ivy on a brick wall, spindle-thin legs and feet that drew back like a faun’s would, perched on black hooves, and wrapped in ephemeral white, wearing its own soul like a shroud.
Every step it took clicked against the stone floor. As the creature drew near, she could see the hollow, lipless face, framed by hair that flowed pomegranate red, skin the bluish-white of ice, eyes black as oil.
She realized, terrified, that this was their smile.
When they spoke, their voice made her think of wind that swept over freshly-turned earth. It reminded her of a church crowded full for a funeral, a hundred voices whispering, grieving.
• • • •
For him, time moved like in a nightmare. Days lasted years and months lasted days. The search went on for far too long, pressing closer and closer to the ruins, but never quite reaching there.
They didn’t go to the ruins, but he did.
Two months passed before he could finally go without suspicion. Two ugly, hate-filled months that nearly ended in the death of an innocent old man, suspected to be her killer for the simple fact that he was quiet and reclusive and an easy target. Nobody cared for the old man. Not like they cared for him, one of the shining stars of the town, one of the bright young men who will grow to lead their city in a manner befitting its history.
As he approached the ruins high on the mountain, he was surprised at how clear the air was. There was no heaviness, no stench of decay, nothing but cool air rushing over him like a baptism. But it had been two months. Nature was swift and brutal. It was deep in fall, and the animals had to prepare for winter. Surely everything was gone by now?
When he reached the remains of the stone walls, he waited a moment before going inside. He rested his hand against the crumbling structure and took a breath, remembering the warm summer when he lost her after trying to have her.
If only she hadn’t fought. He’d done nothing the other men in town hadn’t done. He’d heard them speak in the tavern. He’d seen them as he’d grown. He knew exactly what was permitted, what he was owed. He’d followed the map he’d been given.
He walked around the corner.
Her body lay on the ground, untouched by rot or ruin. Her skin soft and whole, cheeks plump and lips full, as if waiting to be woken from her sleep by a kiss. But the color was gone, drained from her body, pooled around her like black tar over dead leaves. Even the bruises on her wrists, where he’d held her so tightly, had vanished, leaving behind unmarred flesh the color of stone.
He looked around the ruins. In the bushes, a deer was watching him. Unnerved, he yelled at it, shouting for it to go away. His arms flailed over his head as he screamed for the deer to simply leave him in peace. He flung rocks, narrowly missing the animal, striking nearby trees. But the deer remained.
• • • •
Her body persisted in the cool forest, patient, waiting.
Waiting for what? he wondered.
• • • •
She stumbled back, but her legs were weak, and she fell.
Arms wrapped around her, two, then four, and she was cradled, and once again she felt the gentle love of falling.
Their eyes were still dark, almost black, but this close she could see the tinge of red, of old, thick blood that pools on a slaughterhouse floor.
“I’m dead,” she whispered, realizing.
They helped her back to her feet. “You came with no coin,” They said, with the sadness of a small child. “You were not ready to come.”
“Is anybody ever ready?”
They smiled again, and she learned to be less terrified.
One hand of long fingers and coarse skin reached out for hers. She let her soft, greying flesh rest against it.
“The world above will say I took you,” They said. “I did not take you.”
“I know.” Her hands slowly cooled. She tried to take a deep breath, but her lungs wouldn’t work. They didn’t need to, anymore.
“I do not take any of you before it is time.” They turn over her hands, trace a stone-rough finger against her palm. “You are given to me. You are sent to me.” They were a blend of sadness and anger, the sound of fury, of hot tears spilled in another world. But the dead could not cry.
“The same was said of me,” They told her. “It was said that I was taken from Earth, and with me went the spring. The world turned cold and the sun vanished from the sky.”
“The sun returned,” she told Them. “The world became warm again.”
“Of course it did. The world doesn’t stop for one lost girl.”
• • • •
Her body wouldn’t go away.
When he was young, one of their mousers had a litter. Tiny squirming beans suckling at their purring mother. He picked one up. He held it too hard. He was too little to understand.
That had gone away.
Or later, when he was old enough to understand, but not quite old enough to catch himself before acting, he played too roughly with his friends at the retaining wall. They knocked a weaker boy, the boy with the lame leg, into the river. The boy was rescued, but his mind was never quite right again. The boy’s parents demand he be punished for what he had done to their child.
That too had gone away.
He didn’t mean to. He never meant to. He simply didn’t know his own strength. Didn’t know what he was capable of. Accidents happen.
Why won’t she go away?
• • • •
The world doesn’t stop for one lost girl.
He would go on, she realized. There are other girls. Ones who have not yet been lost, one way or another. There are so many ways to lose a girl. Even those like her, who spot every trap, who watch every move, who balance themselves so precisely that they could never fall, even they can slip through the cracks.
But him? He will be fine.
“How many would it take, then?”
They know she was not asking Them. The world above has forgotten Them as much as it has forgotten her and every other girl that has come here too early.
“How many girls must be lost before the world stops and takes notice?”
For a moment, she could see the girl in the wisp of white that shrouded Them. Hair dark as the night sky, thick and curled, rich brown skin and eyes full of stars. Once They were a girl of joy and love and light, with the same heart that she had, the same hope and happiness. The same fear. The same caution. The same narrow line to walk.
But then the girl vanished, and all that was left was this creature of shadow and bone, who could give her no answer, who wanted just as badly as she did to steal spring and warmth and light from the world that had stolen it from her.
“The world won’t stop?” she asked. “Then I will make the world stop.”
The cave trembled and cracked open above her. Light poured in, hot as molten stone, searing her icy skin. She was dragged upward, pulled from the place where she fell to. But unlike before, she did not fight. She writhed from the pain of the heat, a scream trapped behind her lips pressed firmly shut, but she did not fight.
Then all at once it was cool again. The air sparkled with snowfall. It was winter in the world above, when the days were cold and the nights were long and dark.
“I need a weapon.” She’d never so much as held a blade except for cooking dinner. But she felt a fury that would overcome anything, even the timidness of her former life.
“You are a girl with a heart full anger, in search of a fight. You are a weapon.”
• • • •
That’s the trick, of course. The lie that no one speaks, but everybody tells. The thing that is known everywhere, but said by no one.
There are only two types of girls in this world: the lucky and the lost.
• • • •
Her head is pain and her body is ice. The sky is a mass of grey, edging towards night or away from dawn, she can’t tell which. Everything is made brighter by the snow. Fat flakes drift down over her. They do not melt when they touch her skin.
She sits up.
His eyes are wide. His breath is still.
Her hand comes away red when she touches the back of her neck.
There is a rustling in the brush. A deer dashes off into the woods, leaving them alone.
He breathes a name in shock. She recognized the name as hers. But it doesn’t suit her anymore. Now she bears the names of a thousand lost girls, gouged into the flesh of her back, etched into her bones, the sound of their last cries running through her veins and flowing into her dead heart. She is bigger now than just one name.
She grabs his wrist and holds firm. He tries to pull away, but she stands firm, a stone carving of a girl. She is a snare, and he is her prey. He strains, pleading for her to let him go. She remembers pleading the same. She remembers how he said he would not hurt her.
She lets him go free, making no such promise. Lets him have a moment to run, a moment of hope, just as she had when she was still warm, when it was still just her name in her mouth and her blood in her veins.
She is faster. She is so much faster. Her feet are light on the ground, like a deer, and she takes her time chasing him down.
In his fear, he falls.
She descends upon him, nails and teeth. Her fingers press into his eyes, and her teeth rip through the soft flesh of his face. Her mouth becomes warm with blood.
His hand gropes the ground and he finds a rock. He swings it at her face, but he is slow and blind. She catches the stone, tears it from his hand, and uses it to finish what she started. No, what he started, during that summer picnic in the ruins.
Then, she comes down from the mountain, eyes on the town that made him.