The Story of “The Story of the Two Sisters”
Daniel David Froid
That the little girl answered the door seemed the first sign that something was off. I don’t know: she was so small, and her checkered pinafore and carefully curled, mouse-colored hair made her seem smaller still, doll-like, but also deliberately so, an effect that somebody (not she herself?) had planned. It surprised me how husky her voice was when she said, “Hello. Are you the investigator?” I nodded. Another surprise was how familiar she looked. She seemed like somebody I had met before, but where this child and I might have come across each other was an utter mystery. I have no children and do not associate with them except through my work, and that happens rarely.
She made a small motion, a curtsy that didn’t quite land, for perhaps she didn’t fully grasp how or was simply unable to do it, and so she awkwardly bobbed, tilting a few centimeters too far forward—she lost her balance and hastened to thwart a fall, which she did with a snap in the opposite direction—and I watched, dazzled, as this complexity of motion unfolded in the space of just a few seconds, and then she gestured inward with her tiny hand and proffered an enigmatic smile. “Please come in.”
And so I did, I came in, smiling in return and nodding in thanks, and that the house was so spotless inside seemed somehow another sign or alarm. Nobody’s house is this clean—nobody’s house who has children. Vinegar’s sharp bright odor flooded my nose. The room I had entered was an entryway, giving way to the kitchen on one side and, on the other, a closed door: the basement? This must be the back door; yes, I had entered through the back of the house. She said, “It is only my sister and I who are home.” Careful diction, prim and proper: who was this unworldly child? I decided to ask directly. I sank to my knees, in order to join her on her level, and asked, summoning up my most honeyed tone of voice, “What is your name?”
She said, “Ernestine.” I thought I detected some hint of coolness. Did she sense condescension in my efforts at warmth? I don’t know how to modulate. I don’t know how to act around children, a daunting admission given my line of work and the fact that it is sometimes one of my duties to comfort or soothe them, and yet it is true. Somebody once said I should act like they’re people, like anyone else I might meet, and somehow that advice has always stuck in my head but I have never applied it. When faced with a child, I feel unstuck and overcome; they who have just begun to grasp the social contract can so easily see through the terms of agreement; they see how I struggle to meet them. Their ignorance grants them too great a share of perception, which one might call wisdom, though I would stop short of it. All this rushed through my head as I swayed on creaking knees, and I said, “How old are you, Ernestine?”
She turned away and said, “Would you like coffee or tea?” Such an off-putting child, who imbued too great a density of meaning in her every move and word. I thought she must be the strangest child I’d ever met. I stood up unsteadily, placing one hand on a nearby stool to balance my weight, and said, “I would love some coffee. Thank you.”
She turned toward the kitchen, and I followed. The kitchen was old, the age of its faded and scuffed wooden floor greater by far than my own three decades. She bustled around the narrow room; to reach the countertops, she used a little stool that she moved around and stood upon. Yes, there were stools everywhere in this house. Beyond her slight figure, I could see where the wooden floor ended and a burgundy carpet began, which indicated the threshold of the living room. I watched as she clutched a kettle in one small hand and moved toward the counter next to the sink. From a pitcher made of glass she filled the kettle and placed it on the stove, and then she began to fill the French press with coffee grounds, measuring inexactly with a spoon. Then again, it only seemed inexact to me; I cannot speak for her and any innate capacity to measure that she may have possessed. Next to the press were two delicate cups on matching saucers: floral print, green vines stretching across expanses of white.
I took a seat at the table, on a chair adorned with a frilly pink cushion. It took me a moment to summon up the fortitude to speak once more. I said, “Ernestine, is your mother home?” She paused in her motion, spoon held aloft. “My mother hasn’t been home for a long, long time.” She laughed, a fairy tinkle that seemed at odds with the rasp of her voice, and said, “My mother is dead.”
I said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“She’s been dead for ages.” She had filled the press; now she placed the spoon in the sink. The sun shone through the window behind the sink and let in the most radiant light. The sky was a rich imperial blue. I wanted to be there, in it.
“Did you say your sister was here? Is that—is that Millicent?”
“I did say that, and she is my sister,” Ernestine said. She approached me now at the table, but she didn’t sit down. “Millicent is outside in the garden.” We remained in silence for several minutes. When the kettle wailed, Ernestine moved to pour its water into the French press. “It is very important,” she said as she poured, “to get the temperature right and to let the grounds steep for the correct amount of time.” Despite her comment, she did not set a timer, and no clocks in the room seemed at the ready for her watchful eye. Instead she clasped her hands in front of her and stared at the French press in silence. Several minutes passed until, according to the guidance of some internal clock, she deemed it ready. She poured the coffee into the cups and brought one to me. She took the other for herself and, at last, sat down. It occurred to me to wonder whether a child should have ready access to coffee.
She held the coffee before her but did not drink; wisely, she chose to wait until it cooled. Unlike her, but like myself in the sense that I am not wise, I immediately sipped the coffee and scalded my tongue. It was far too hot but extraordinarily good. I said so, praised it, and Ernestine smiled. Then she said, “I was aware that you would come. But can you tell me why you’re here today?”
I smiled and set down my cup. I spoke slowly, taking care to choose my words with precision: “I am an investigator, and one of your neighbors has let us know that Millicent, your sister, is missing. It seems that nobody has seen her for several weeks.”
Ernestine sipped her coffee and looked at me, meeting my gaze. Then she repeated what she had said a few minutes ago: “My sister is outside in the garden.”
“May I see her?”
“Wouldn’t you like to finish your coffee?”
“Sure. Yes. Of course.” We continued to sit in silence. It took only a few minutes for me to empty the cup, after which Ernestine glanced at it and said, “Let’s go to the garden.”
Ernestine moved out of her chair and through the kitchen. I followed her into the living room with its plush burgundy carpet and heavy old furniture—armchairs, end tables, overflowing bookcase—and then into a short hallway, at the end of which loomed a door with inset glass, covered by a muslin curtain. Without a word, she opened the door into the garden.
It was very small, less a garden than a tidy square with scant rows of flowers, tomato plants, some herbs. In the corner opposite the door stood a statue of the most exquisite marble. The statue was taller by far than Ernestine, the size of an adult human woman, and though the features resembled hers, they belonged to an older girl. My disquiet was obvious to Ernestine, who met my gaze with a kind of smirk and said, “This is my sister. I’m afraid she’s been frozen in place.”
The statue was now only inches away. I reached out and touched it; the marble felt cold despite the warmth of the sun. “Your sister . . .” I began, but my words trailed off.
“This is my sister,” she said again. All that Ernestine said was delivered in a solemn tone, even funereal. “It happened not long ago, and not far from here, when she came across another garden where there grew a certain herb that is prized above all others, which is said to grant eternal life. She saw the herb, which is unmistakable, for it grows in a spiral, and once she saw it was determined to have it for herself. And so she stepped into the garden and grabbed a fistful, tucking it into a pocket of her apron. But the woman to whom the garden belonged soon came out and saw my sister and cried, ‘Thief!’ Though my sister fled, the woman followed in pursuit, and soon she found her here, at home, where she froze her in marble. And now that is her you see here before you.”
I stood amazed before the girl and the statue. The words that came out of my mouth seemed foolish as soon as uttered, utterly inept and inadequate: “And that’s why your neighbors thought she was missing . . .”
“That is exactly why. And though the woman has promised to free my sister if I complete certain tasks for her, she made the tasks more difficult as well, having cast a spell on me, as Millicent’s abettor, to turn me into a child. I am unable to do these tasks myself, and so my sister will remain trapped, just like this, until I can find someone to help me.”
At that moment I breathed in deeply. A rearrangement of the order of my life was in the air and highly palpable. I knew I would offer my help; why else would I be here? That I had stumbled into the story of these two strange girls was as clear to me as that the statue was made of cold white marble. We exchanged a glance that indicated she knew I would help her. Her face bloomed into a radiant smile.
“What are these tasks you must do?”
“The first is to find the world’s loveliest and most delicate flower and trap it in a gilded cage. The second is to weave the finest and softest silk from a certain silkworm that makes its home on a very rare tree. The third is to find the most beautiful and agreeable child in the world and cook it in a stew for the old woman’s delectation. After all, as many of us know already, the old woman is in fact an ogress who enjoys the meat of children. It is her wont and her pleasure to capture and destroy all the beautiful living beings who make their home in this world.” She stopped speaking and tilted her head, watching for my reaction. I met her gaze and said, “And after that the old woman will reverse the effects of her spells?”
Ernestine nodded. She said, “Are you prepared to help me?”
With a heavy heart, I nodded. It is not that I wanted to do these things, but, rather, that I saw my fate unfurl before me. It unfurled quickly. As she spoke, I could see it: this was my future. I do not wish to call it my destiny or fate. But I recognized the truth of it all, and the surety of my subsequent participation, with a force unlike anything I had ever known. It was simply, intuitively, unambiguously true, as the marble was ice-cold to my touch and the sky was free and clear.
The child—though in fact, of course, no child at all—laughed her fairy laugh and said, “That’s good. Because we aren’t going to do any of those things. We’re going to kill the witch.”
At that point Ernestine led me back into the house. She poured me more coffee and promised to cook us some eggs. As she went about the kitchen and gathered the requisite materials—pan, eggs, butter, plates—she continued to talk. I sat and listened. Ernestine described her plan and explained my role in her conspiracy. The plan was very simple, to the extent that I wondered whether the old woman had already anticipated something like it. Ernestine was going to supply the old woman with a series of fraudulent gifts: a regular flower of no remarkable beauty in a cage gilded by artificial means; fine and soft silk derived from an ordinary origin, an ordinary silkworm; and another meat—pork—cooked in a stew. She explained that, while the plan did seem altogether too simple, what the old woman wouldn’t expect was such a flagrant violation of narrative law. “You see,” she said, clutching the coffee cup in her delicate hands, “the old woman follows certain rules to the letter and expects us to follow suit. She is certain that she will find all thieving young girls whose curious eyes stray toward her garden and turn them to stone and that her requests will never be fulfilled. Or she must be less meticulously tricked, the tables turned in a different way. I believe that, if the requests were met, she would gladly do as she says. If things were to unfold another way—well, Solveig Nilsen would be shocked.”
At this point I spoke in a low voice, leaning forward in my seat. “Solveig Nilsen,” I said. “Is that the old woman’s name?”
“No,” Ernestine said. “It’s not.”
“Have you considered meeting the requests?”
“Well, of course I have, but I ask you to consider this. If they were met, she would simply be reborn the next time a hungry girl wandered too near to an old witch’s garden. I believe that you do not quite grasp the scope of our work. By surprising the woman, and killing her prematurely, we therefore destroy the cycle.”
“The cycle,” I repeated.
“Yes. It’s a story I’ve lived through many times. And you have, too. Does all of this not feel very familiar to you: my home, my childlike appearance, my missing sister? Do you not feel that you’ve encountered all of this before?”
I agreed. She was right. It felt familiar. But it seemed to me that whatever mental picture I possessed of the situation remained clouded, fuzzy around the edges—the entire picture unclear.
“Do you not even find it a little strange that you lack a name of your own? You are simply, after all, a conduit through whom the story is told. Our author hasn’t bequeathed you with very much more than that, I’m afraid.” At this point she stood up. She walked toward the sink and began to clean the dishes.
It’s true; I have no name. When she said it, I recognized that she was right. What was my name? Had I ever had one? What was I doing here, really?
Ernestine continued, “I am grateful, you know, that the story continues to be updated now and then. I appreciate these modern conveniences.” She held up the French press and gestured to her stainless-steel sink. “It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were drinking nettle tea in a wretched wooden hut.” She laughed. “I suppose I’ve had not a little practice in making fine coffee and eggs as we mull over our plans to save my poor sister—my poor sister who is always trapped in marble. That has been one constant from the beginning.”
At the table, where I remained, I was silent.
Then I spoke. “What am I doing here, really?”
Now the girl sighed. “‘The Story of the Two Sisters,’ by Solveig Nilsen. That is the name of the story and its author.” Soon she’d returned to the table, the dishes clean. “You are simply a narrative device. You are not even, to tell the truth, a genuine a character—or, I’m afraid, not much of one. But to return to my plan: I wish to show Mrs. Nilsen that we are rather more than wooden pieces on a game board of her own design. If we break the cycle, what a surprise she will have! There will be no more story at all then, and my sister and I can at last live in peace.”
At some point, she noticed my silence. She said, “Well? Can you speak? Can you tell me what you think of my plans?”
I could not speak. I could not tell her, for I did not know. I knew she was right, and yet some reserve within me, of fear or self-preservation, if that was what it was, prevented response. The problem lay in my failure to understand the problem. No. The problem lay in my complete and total failure to gather resources both external and internal, resources that could conceivably aid or advance or improve my understanding. Understanding what. The problem lay in not knowing: what questions to ask, where to start, anything. The problem was the lack—yes, that’s right. The lack, the absence, the nothing. But these were not intractable problems, lacks and gaps and absences. All these many voids could be filled.
But what if I did not want to leave the contours of this story, which, I had forgotten, did in fact form the borders of my life? What if I wanted things to remain as they are—to remain in place? Could I refuse now to rebel?
I didn’t know. Remaining at the table, I didn’t say anything for a long, long time.
Ernestine Boggs chuckled to herself and then cursed. Her writing made her chuckle, and her cursing was her response to one finger’s inadvertent tap, which caused a growing length of ash to fall from her cigarette and spray onto her keyboard. “Isn’t that nice,” she muttered. She would clean it up later. Now, she stood up from her desk, let loose a hacking cough, and began to pace, cigarette in hand. Part of her wished to end the story there; she felt it had reached its conclusion, that she’d tied a neat enough bow—maybe a little bit crooked, she thought—on the narrator’s predicament. And yet another part of her wondered whether she should keep going, should go through with the little girl’s plan and develop a confrontation of some kind with Mrs. Solveig Nilsen. Ernestine Boggs told herself that that would be tedious and decided to make some lunch. After pulling on her favorite housecoat—pink leopard-print polyester—she opened the door and left the room.
She had been having trouble with the story. She wanted to write a little bit about herself, her own life and experiences, and, in the process of writing, she found that she came out with a cockeyed fairy tale with no resolution and no moral: not at all what she had intended. And as she wrote she could not decide which of the characters were, in fact, herself, though she suspected that each of them might be: the girl, whose name she shared; the deeply perplexed and vacuous narrator, or the unseen old woman. A trio, sacred number. It occurred to her that there was another trio as well: statue, narrator, and author. The narrator remained in the center of both, the nexus, the point where the lines of the X converge. “I’m so full of shit,” Ernestine Boggs said out loud then, and once more she made herself laugh.
All of these things jangled in her head as she left her office and descended the stairs to her kitchen. As she took one step and another, she absentmindedly patted her hair, a grey permed helmet that she regarded with inordinate and unreasonable vanity.
Fiction was her latest challenge, and she did find it a challenge. She thought about the days on the set of Eagle’s Nest when she and Serafina Nicolls had screamed at each other for hours, debating the likelihood of this or that plot point. Those days had been easier, and more fun, than this morning. Over decades she had spent her time not just writing scripts but sparring with all those—other writers, producers, actors—who dared to question a melodramatic plot twist or a faulty line of dialogue. She preferred to get her own way at all costs, no matter that she was a writer, not an actor; she would revise only with spite and resentment. Yet now that all obstacles had vanished—rather, now that she had removed them, giving herself what she thought of as a gift of this new pursuit—she found that everything proved much harder than she’d imagined or desired. Her talent was for provocation, in her verbal spats and the endless streams of melodrama that she held deep within her like a volcano. Who would approach that rocky ledge and feel the scald? More to the point: now she was dormant, and however would she activate those deep reserves of magma again? She wanted to feel as if the top of her head were taken off. But she wanted to do it to herself, and so, unskilled in the art of trepanning, she fumbled with a blunted knife.
In the kitchen, she was staring into space. She was lost in thought and dwelling on the nexus. It was not her first attempt at autobiography, yet somehow all of them seemed to turn out this way. She would announce to her empty rooms, “Now I will write a little something about myself,” and then she would sit down and come up with something utterly other. “No discipline,” she would tut. “No focus.”
Now she startled herself out of reverie, grinding her cigarette into the enamel ash tray on her kitchen table and then moving toward the sink to wash her hands. She liked to watch as the gummy liquid soap turned to suds in her hands as she rubbed them together.
As she scrubbed, she found that she’d boarded a new train of thought: time means becoming meat. What was she doing here—smoking her cigarettes, weakly attempting her fiction, cooking her lunch—except hurtling toward an end that would be both swift and decisive, as all ends are, the final transformation to a lump of dead flesh, metamorphosis that crazed and scared her. All that she wrote disappeared into ether. Here it was: one day, she would follow it there. That her consciousness would simply dissolve, having nowhere to go, was appalling. She couldn’t believe it. She did not believe in God but thought at times that something must wait beyond the dissolution, the wreck of the body and the vanishing of the spirit. Law of conservation of matter: it has an intuitive rightness and elegance and so, she thought, there must be a law of conservation of spirit. Her consciousness was not a tangible entity, but still it lived and flourished. It was, she was—I am Ernestine Boggs, for chrissake! It, she, I was there, here, alive and well. Her spirit had to go somewhere. Would she be reborn? Always, she thought, reincarnation seemed as dubious, perplexing, and annoying as anything else. I will not be an insect, she thought. Ego! She clung to a sense of conviction. No longer washing her hands, she had taken a seat at the small round kitchen table and begun to look listlessly fridge-ward. She was putting off the task of cooking her meal.
It seemed to her that a human being had too great a share of vivacity, or vitality, or whatever it meant to be something—sentience—and to become something else, yet, at the same time, she thought, it was not just humans, and animals, too, had their own unique share of whatever-it-was. Right? Her old dear dead dog—Cheryl—had not been cursed with Ernestine’s churning self-consciousness, but hadn’t she had her own life? She did; she’d had thoughts, Cheryl had, and wishes and all the things she loved and despised. And where did she go when she died? Where did silkworms go once they had spun out of themselves the very shelters that would serve as the cause of their destruction? Vitality cannot be wasted.
She thought, lost in thought, wouldn’t Mrs. Solveig Nilsen be surprised if I turned the tables on her? Where is my Solveig Nilsen? Now “fuck” she said aloud and approached the fridge, which, open, gave off a dim yellow light. She grabbed the eggs and a loaf of bread and transferred them from fridge to counter.
The stove released its rich stink of gasoline and blue plume of fire. She slapped her pan on the burner grate and reached for the eggs. Clutching one in her hands, somehow she squeezed too tightly and cracked its shell. Startled, she dropped it on the floor.
She paused for some seconds. And then, lowering herself to her knees, she inspected the floor, not clean, with a new covering of bits of shell and a thin layer of albumen. And the yolk, punctured in the fall, was now seeping across the albumen and shell and dirty tile. Ernestine Boggs put her hands on the floor and drew closer to the egg. Then she stuck one finger into the mess and swirled it around, feeling the egg-slime and prickle of shell-shards.
What is the egg? Shell is host or vessel, and the egg the sacred body that the vessel receives and gently shelters. Or the vessel is an inextricable part of its being, vessel and body identical. And the thinnest skin that shelters the yolk—that invisible membrane that allows it to remain suspended, still, round, and whole. That the vessel itself had shattered, seeping its liquid across the floor, seemed like an instance of the great and only crime: the dissolution of life. There it goes!
Her destiny could be atmospheric. When her own spirit fades away into that unknown wherever, her particles will be captured by air, sucked one day into lungs; she will be lived and breathed. Or her destiny could be interstellar. When her spirit goes at last, it will seep into the stars and puddle atop, alongside, within the black pool of space, one viscous fluid that cannot quite dissolve into another. It will resemble this wreck of egg on the floor, to be cleaned up by someone. She plunged a finger into the yolk now and smeared it around on the tile, picking up the dust and grime of months. The gasoline smell, thick, wafted to her nostrils. Above eye level, the flame continued to burn, ever-blue. It was scorching her little pan. To the empty kitchen and the egg and the gas and the flame, she said, “Where is my own Solveig Nilsen? How do I turn the tables on her?”
With an abrupt and smooth motion that surprised her, even in the act of doing it, she stood up, switched off the gas, and set about cleaning floor and oven. The pan might be ruined. She placed it in the sink. Scrubbing it hard until it shone, she rubbed and rubbed the tile. She thought about going back upstairs now, to her office, about getting back to work and fixing the story.
Instead she exchanged her housecoat for a gold lamé windbreaker, and, having first slipped an apple in its pocket, stepped outside into the cold bright day. She was heading for the woods behind her house. She passed her garden, identical in nearly every detail to that of the little girl in the story. She stopped by the statue and gazed at it with a longing that felt ever renewed. This was no statue of a sister, for Ernestine had no sister she wished to memorialize, but of Cheryl the dog. Ernestine said her name aloud and patted the marble head.
She removed the apple and brought it to her teeth. Incisors punctured its thick red skin. Its liquid sprayed her face and stickied her hands and dribbled down her chin. She munched and walked into the forest. Eventually, the core of the apple fell from her hand to the ground; later, ants would throw themselves across its juicy crags and celebrate this gift of life.
The light in the forest was several shades darker than the day. Trees huddled close, and Ernestine Boggs could see but little. She was thinking of waste and where her vitality would go. And what about the characters whom she imbued with traces of herself, her own vigor or essence or whatever she gave them? She inflated them with the breath of life, said: Live! and they listened. She could think something else into sentience; at times she really thought she could, and the capacity to be surprised by a character’s actions was a novel occurrence that was not unique to her. More energy that, it seemed, was not ultimately conserved. Energy she poured into dead ends that might cause some few minutes’ amusement or diversion but not much more than that. Is that how it worked? She thought: there ought to be a magistrate who passes judgment on the law’s transgression.
The train of thought stopped in its tracks, hurtled to a halt. She saw something near her feet, the only spot of color that was not dingy green, dark brown, grey. It was a flower of stunning beauty. Its color neither pink nor purple but a luscious intermediate shade, it stood upright, shooting out of the ground in greeting. It looked like an orchid, despite the fact that, she thought, orchids don’t, can’t, grow in this region of the world.
A thought resounded in her mind. She laughed aloud. Looking down at her shining jacket, she wondered if it could serve as a gilded cage. Then she knelt and tore the flower from the earth, slipping it into a pocket that, zipped, enclosed it.
On she went. Of course she harbored some guilt about her previous action. She had snatched the flower’s vitality away, following a remorseless impulse to hoard its beauty for herself. It was true. But, if she were the narrator of the story she had tried to write, she would feel quite pleased that she’d gathered one of the materials that would, in theory, effect the rescue of the stolen sister. The thought made her vision sharper. She looked around to see what she could see. And so, there, of course, on some variety of mulberry tree—which she could only assume made its home here because of some unknown law, if not the laws of ecology that seemed to have been somehow suspended, the dictate of some unknown creator to whom she must one day offer her thanks—with its low stump and plump bouquet of leaves, she espied white writhing hordes of silkworms. Unskilled in the art of sericulture, she would not know how to cultivate cocoons that would have to be despoiled. And yet she collected a fistful of worms, and she slipped that fist into her other pocket and let them go. She zipped the pocket shut.
And now she knew what was coming, what was left. She did not know who it was or what to call that unknown master—driver at the wheel, arbiter of the law, author of the story—but it did seem to her that someone was in charge and it was not and never would be her.
She thought, I was trying to finish my story. I would write a little about myself. It turned out a different way, went askew or awry, as things in her experience tended to do. She didn’t know where she was anymore. But she could see, ahead of her, in a space that was too small to be a clearing, a rupture in the ceiling of the woods through which shone the moon’s soft light—no matter that the dark had not yet fallen when she left, unless time had passed too quickly, far beyond her capacity to measure its continual ticking—a child curled up on dirt and leaves.
She glanced up at that pinprick rupture. The gibbous moon resembled an egg. She thought: damn the moon. She would like to crack its shell and watch the albumen and yolk gush out on that endless surface that was no surface. She would like to see whether it would be absorbed or suspended. This child may lose the vitality that Ernestine Boggs held so sacred. It would diminish or be consumed. It could be her who would breathe some miniscule particles of matter into her own lungs. She thought again of the gibbous egg that she would love to smash, whose insides would seep into night’s dark coverlet, to dampen or stain it. Take it! she thought. She wanted it gone. She wanted the child gone, too.
Perhaps if she did it—claimed the child as part of her quest, did what it now seemed she might be fated to do—she would turn around and retrace her path and find, when she returned, a different house with someone else waiting in its garden. And perhaps that one would know what to do with her, though she doubted it. And perhaps that one would know where all that vitality or vivacity or whatever it was would flow in its own good time, though she didn’t think she could believe it. She was walking toward the child.
From the clarity and brightness of the gibbous egg’s light, she saw the child and she knew who it was. It was the narrator of her story, that one to whom she had not bothered to give a face, much less a name, the narrator who was only a nexus, a plot point in some grander scheme.
Born into a world that could never grant recognition, because there was nothing to recognize, because, once born, nothing was granted but confusion of mind and spirit, the narrator lies curled and sleeping on the floor of the forest. Ernestine Boggs approaches and gently rests her hands on a nondescript back. Her nails are tapping on flesh that is warm. She is playing a tattoo, calling you to action. She takes off her jacket and covers the body of this eternal unknown. She thinks: Who would eat you? Who would grant you your fate, and, having consigned you to its dark intentions, swell with the pleasure of a gratifying meal? And whatever you have of a soul would scamper—somewhere. The question whose asking I cannot stop; the future whose coming I can neither see nor bear. A deer in the woods, a babe in the woods, are you. In a dream I watched one beast eviscerate another for the simple pleasure of it. Neither hunger nor safety were at issue; it was merely the delectation of a perverse and beastly impulse obeyed and embraced. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it to you. I have shorn myself of such impulses in the interest of life, the vitality I worship and refuse to consume.
She stands up, walks further into the forest, shorn of her jacket, shorn of her treasures, surrendering to a narrative law she did not design, whose sudden arrival she couldn’t have seen, shorn of self and life but, still, becoming.
Daniel David Froid is a scholar, educator, and writer of strange stories who lives in Indiana. His scholarly research focuses on devils in eighteenth-century British literature, and his fiction appears in Lightspeed and Weird Horror, among others. He teaches at Purdue University.