Rock matches rock.
Just one hour before sunrise, the dense forest is silent as a tomb. Soon, a flock of waking birds will shatter this new peace as they take flight through the clouds into the creeping pink. But in this pre-dawn moment, it is possible to imagine that nothing here lives and nothing here moves. Not now. There are giant faces frozen in the towering rocks. Savagely hacked away by thousands of years of water and wind. Wrathful as gods. They hold cruel stories in their muted heads of slate. The tall pines whisper with the winds in collusion. Though they too have seen all that the dark night seized, their secrets will be carried with them for an eternity. As the sky slowly lightens, the mist and winds take reign. Slim lines of white powdery ice shards snake along the ground and swirl in circular formations as though they are playing a game of chase. Tag, you’re It. Tag, you lose. The birds scatter.
If you had been here earlier, when the moon was pregnant and high, you might have stumbled upon the fine domed house of glass and the girls, soft as snowflakes, dancing within it. There were scores and scores of girls, the greatest number of girls collected in any one place. Folk travelled from far and wide to see them, and every evening, as the sun started its dip down below the ground, these watchers made their way through the pines. They climbed up the fanged rocks to the highest point, and then just waited. Finally, as the last embers of evening sun fizzled away, the house lights started to appear. By the time the moonlight beamed against the domed roof, the faint strains of music stirred. They were followed by a warm glow coming from a grand room at the front of the house. Though they stood far atop the hill, the light was bright enough to allow the watchers to consume the full splendour of the dance.
As the cymbals crashed and the violins swooned, the girls twirled around in white Broderie Anglais dresses, spinning like ethereal wraiths in a momentary merry game. Some were mere girl-lings, will-o’-the-wisps, and some were in a later stage of bloom. Ripe, budding, veritable nymphs on the cusp of womanhood – the flying skirts of their dresses showing more than they understood. The folk on the hill could hear their high-pitched laughter mingling with the music on the breeze.
As the dance ended, the lights dimmed and the girls giddily ran back through the house. The elders, dressed in black robes – as though in commiserating funeral garb – stood hunched and weary in the endless corridors, ushering the girls into their dorms to ready themselves for bed. One elder for every corridor. And by morning light, as by every morning light, one score out of the many scores of girls, across all the corridors, would be gone.
Scissors match scissors.
It was a house for girls of no known parentage, watched over by the elders who taught them all they needed to know: grace, poise, beautification, discipline. Among the collection, there were two girls who were not sisters, but looking at them, you might think they were. Light as feathers, curious as cats. Delivered to the house on the same day at the tender age of six months. Named Luna and Nova by the older girls. Two sides of the same creature. One fair (Nova), the other dark (Luna). Inseparable to a fault
Rock crushes scissors.
Safe in the immediate afterglow of the dance, under their bed covers, the girls in their dorms all whispered to each other until sleep overtook them. Today had been a good day, the elders were in a favourable mood. There would be honey in the porridge for breakfast tomorrow. Life could be kind in the house of glass. All one had to do for an easy time of it, was to look after the younger ones, carry out one’s chores without complaint, make oneself resplendent for the evening and then smile smile smile through the dance at night.
Everything in the house had an order. It was so simple to be favoured by the elders as long as one stayed on course, any veering off was not worth it, no no. The girls were all in agreement. To do that would mean ill treatment, foul moods and threats in the corridors. Possibly, if one was really too much, it could result in having to spend the whole afternoon sat outside in the courtyard with the guard dogs prowling round. Heaven help you if you were interrupting mating season or if one of the angry bitches had just had pups. Or worse still – being sent to the under rooms. Ah and what to do there? With no light and no windows? Surely that’s where girls were sent to die?
One of the two would-be sisters, Luna, laughed loudly, “Don’t be ridiculous. They would never let us just die. The under rooms are where the waywards are kept. That’s all.”
There was silence. Nova, hesitated before chiming in, “It’s true. The elders wouldn’t let any of us die, no matter how bad we are. We are too special, everyone knows that.”
“Well I heard that people used to let babies die all the time.”
“Babies? Don’t be ridiculous. That’s rubbish. Then why would we bother looking after them? And why are the elders nicest when we get the new lots?”
“No. I don’t mean now. I mean before.”
“Well, before we came I suppose.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Look, I know what I heard and that was some of the older girls saying babies were left to die. That’s all. I don’t know when or why or whatever. But that’s what I heard. Anyway, it’s not like you know anything more either, do you? Any of you?”
“No. But I know there are lots of things they say. And lots of things they don’t say. Like what happens after?”
“She means when we leave.”
“Well it’s what we’re here for. It’s what we’re destined to fulfil.”
“Oh please, shut up, you sound like them.”
“Don’t you want to know where we go? Don’t you ever wonder? How can you lot not want to know something like that?”
“Stop! That’s enough. Some things we’re not meant to know. We’re not supposed to talk about this stuff. We’ll get into trouble if they find out.”
“Right. And are you going to tell?”
“Stop it, stop it, all of you. We’re too young anyway. It’s the older girls who go first.”
“That’s not true. As soon as we join the dance, then it might be our time.”
There was another silence as each girl considered this. No warnings, no goodbyes, no afters. Just when it was time, it was time. Gone.
Scissors match scissors.
In the morning, everyone in this dorm is still in their bed. The girls smile at each other as they rise and wonder if perhaps they really are too young and they need not fret. Not for some years anyhow. They are greeted with jars of honey in the centre of each of their tables in the dining hall. They eat greedily. There is noisy chatter and much laughter. A bowl smashes onto the floor; pink fruit flesh and syrupy juice splatter out from the broken fragments of smooth white bone china, forming a great messy puddle. There is a tense moment as the girls await reprisal, but surprisingly none comes. The elders are in a very good mood today. There must have been a large load of tiny ones delivered this morning. Deposited from outside via a tunnel running under the house, a new batch of baby girls, half a year old. To be reared and prepped by the older girls, just as they had been. Then when their age is right, they will be given white dresses and soft satin slippers. And they will dance every evening until it is their time. After that is anyone’s guess. It is not fitting or becoming for polite young ladies to discuss it. Isn’t it enough to just be? Enough to be happy and simply keep quiet about such things? Enough.
Paper matches paper.
“If my time comes before yours, I’ll find a way to wake you up so you know.”
“Me too. And if it’s me first, then I’ll find a way to let you know what’s happening.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without you. If you left, I’ll have nothing. I’ll be alone.”
“No, you won’t. You’ll be with all the others.”
“That’s not the same. It’s not the way it is with just the two of us. They’re not like us. They don’t care about the same things.”
“I know– it would be the same for me as well though if you went first, you know? But neither of us are going anywhere for a while anyway. We have ages, years– Also, Nova, I was thinking something. You know the ones who go first are usually the older ones?” A nod. “They look different– to us.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, they look more like the elders.”
“No, they don’t. The elders look miserable and ancient. The older girls are beautiful.”
“I don’t mean like that. I mean their shape. They’re not like us. They’re more– You know, you can really see everything when they’re dancing.”
“I know! They look so lovely.”
“Yes. They do. They do look lovely. But they leave sooner.”
“Yes but– I don’t understand.”
“I think we need to be careful. Like, I don’t think we should eat the honey anymore, that’s all–”
“Or too much. Of anything. We need to watch ourselves.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nova, listen to me. I just– I think we’ll be here together for longer if we stay like this.”
“Looking like this.”
An intake of breath. A certain look. An exhale.
“Oh– I see– Yes, I suppose you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that before– Ok. We can try.”
Rock blunts scissors.
“Don’t you ever wonder about the waywards downstairs? In the under rooms.”
“I heard the older girls saying the girls there are mad. They’re not just wayward. They are beyond help. You don’t want to be sent there, even for a day. Those girls are infectious and getting too close to them will make you mad too.”
“What! That’s stupid. That’s just what they say to make us not want to go down there.”
“Exactly, I don’t believe it either. They just say that to scare us.”
“Well I don’t want to find out.”
“Why not? I don’t understand why everyone is too scared to have a look.”
“Because what if what they say is right? What if they are contagious down there and you become mad too?”
“But isn’t it maddening not to know? Not knowing drives me crazy.”
“I think you two are crazy to want to look. To risk going mad. Why would you want to do that?”
Scissors cut paper.
They both smelt it as they crept in, something rotting. Nova was the first to see them. She pressed Luna’s hand and tilted her head towards the far wall. Luna followed her friend’s gaze and squinted in the dark to make out the long row of large wooden crates with the front walls missing. There was a sliver of light coming from the staircase behind them. It was hard to make out at first and then they saw the bodies. Girls, just a handful of years older than themselves. One girl lying on the floor inside every crate. Other than the girls, the crates were completely bare. No beds, no chairs, no cushions. Just a girl curled up on the wooden planks, slumped over. Possibly sleeping. Without dresses and slippers, the girls looked like large animals. Siamese cats perhaps, no fur, just skin and a tiny amount of flesh over muscle and bone.
This was not what they had expected.
“Let’s go, we shouldn’t be here,” Nova whispered.
For once Luna was at a loss for words, but she had no intention of leaving.
They heard a humph from the far end of the room. They strained their eyes to look and realised they were being watched.
In a crate towards the end of the row, one of the girls was half-sitting up, hunched over her knees. “Come then,” her voice came out as a low, dry croak.
Luna and Nova slowly walked towards her, trying not to look inside the other crates as they passed. Something small scurried past their feet. They froze, waited a moment, then began to walk again. When they reached the girl, she dragged her body to the front of the crate. Her long, matted hair draped over her body, which she had folded inwards, taking up as little space in her crate as possible.
Luna knelt down by the girl, “Are you alright?”
The girl looked at them through strands of her straggly hair. She raised her eyebrows slightly and looked away as though the question had already crushed her interest in continuing any further conversation.
“We’re sorry,” Nova began softly. “We just wanted to know who was down here–”
The girl threw her head back and laughed in short strange gasps. She seemed to have too many teeth and the bones in her throat made it look as though it would easily snap if she moved her head back much more. She coughed as she leaned forwards again, they smelt a foul vinegary scent on her skin. She said in a rasping whisper, “We were sent back.”
The girl looked slowly from Luna to Nova. Caught in the girl’s stare, Nova couldn’t mask a slight shudder. The girl’s large black eyes seemed void of all light and life. She mouthed something, though no sound came out, just air.
Nova tugged at Luna’s elbow. Luna ignored her, transfixed by the girl, “What? What did you say?”
The girl in the crate pursed her lips into what could have been a smile, but it was ugly. Her body, though gaunt, seemed young. And yet the way she was folded in on herself made it seem so old. An old, broken thing. A discarded husk. She shook her head, looked at the floor and began to rock backwards and forwards.
Luna and Nova had pale, sickened faces. There was a lump in Luna’s throat. Nova had been biting her lip and tasted blood, “We have to go.” She pulled Luna’s arm roughly. The downy hairs felt prickly, her skin cold. Nova tugged again, “Come on. Before anyone wakes up.”
Nova half-dragged her friend up. She turned to say goodbye to the girl in the crate, but she had slouched forwards, as though they had just drained every last ounce of energy from her.
The two would-be sisters marched quickly back up the stairs in silence. When they were in their corridor Nova muttered, “They really are mad. That girl looked like death. They all looked dead.”
Luna was shaking her head. “Not me,” she whispered. “I won’t do it.”
“Just sit around and wait for my time. No way. I can’t.”
“Don’t worry about her. She was just mad,” Nova looked away from Luna, trying to believe what she had just said might be so simple and true. They both knew it was not.
“We will leave,” Luna was thinking as she talked slowly, “Tomorrow when everyone goes to the dance. We’ll stay behind in the dorm and then we’ll leave.”
Nova said nothing. She pulled away brusquely, bent over and retched.
Paper wraps rock.
Two waiflings in white dresses and satin slippers, one fair, the other dark, raced downstairs past the under rooms, along the long, dimly lit tunnel that spanned the whole length of the house, and then up up up a steep narrow stairwell to the outside, into the vast belly of the forest. The unexpected cold air met them with a slap. It was too late to go back now though. None of the other girls had ever dared such a feat, they knew this. They had no idea where they would go but they knew they could not stay and just wait.
As they ran, shards of tiny ice particles flew into their eyes, obscuring their vision as the wind tried to blow their paper-thin bodies back towards the house of glass. Tonight the elements were seemingly in league with the elders and all who wished to detain them.
They had not gone far before they heard the shouts. Angry, booming. The elders. Luna and Nova looked at each other in terror. They had not expected anyone to notice they were missing until after the dance had finished. They quickened their pace. Their soft slippers slipped as they ran, they were not made to withstand frosted earth and craggy stones. The damp satin allowed every sharp edge to rip through to the delicate skin on the soles of their feet. But they ran on. The voices seemed to be coming from far behind them, and there was something else still. Barking. Dogs. The hounds. They ran and ran, through the disordered trees with their probing lower branches and scratching pine needles. Onwards – gasping, panting, hearts hammering. They were used to exerting themselves during the dances, but nothing like this. A skid, a stumble and a scream. Freezing bloodied knees, scraped palms and a raw chin. The gritty taste of wet mud on the lips. The bright cream moon shone high above them, but it failed to light every slippery, thick root or fallen tree branch. Quick, get up, come on. They didn’t know where they were running, simply away. And now seemingly uphill. Why did they choose this path? The shouting was gathering speed behind them. Was that a clearing ahead, the trees less dense? Where would they hide then? But there was no turning back. Perhaps there would be something wonderful at the top, some cosy haven to hide in, some saving hand of grace. Please, they couldn’t have made it this far, to have actually left the domed house of glass, to not even make it one night. They raced. Onwards, blindly, at a loss. And then they stopped. Luna grabbed Nova’s arm to steady herself. There was a clearing alright. A small open expanse of dark green and granite. And then a drop. Part of the way down seemed to have patchy grass. But the rest was cold, hard, jagged rock. And then, never ending blackness.
The girls looked at each other, blinking to see through the hailstones. There was nowhere else to go. The shouting was getting louder. In a moment they would be dragged back to their glass cage and that would be that. Perhaps they would be sent straight to the under rooms as punishment, that wouldn’t be so bad surely, to live among those broken girls. At least they were warm and dry. The dogs came first. Bounding up, barking and snarling. Then came two of the elders, out of breath, faces livid with thunder, “What on earth are you girls doing – What were you thinking – Where are you going?”
There would be no honey for anyone tomorrow, that was for sure. It was hopeless. All at once, the girls allowed themselves to feel the bitter pain of being frozen and utterly exhausted. Nova began to cry. She dropped to the icy ground as if in apology and surrender. Luna tried to pull her up. The dogs came closer, how vile they smelt. Beast-like and dirty.
“We just wanted–” Luna began. “To see–” her thoughts were scrambled. It was too cold and windy to think properly. What could they have wanted to see?
The dogs growled as thick drool dripped to the earth. One raced towards the cowering Nova. She recoiled, jerking Luna’s hand. They all froze. The dark-haired girl made of paper fluttered – as if blown back by a sigh, an exhalation from a disinterested giant. They watched it happening as if in slow motion. Though in fact it happened in a flash. A heartbeat. A baby’s minuscule intake of breath. Luna fell backwards, it was just a step. But her shredded slippers were useless against the wet stone. They saw her fall and heard her cry out. She looked surprised more than anything. But it was only a short cry, before the weighted crack. Light as a feather? No, despite her best efforts, the girl was suddenly heavy as lead. Nova turned on the ground in shock, looking at the empty place where her friend had just stood. And then she screamed, loud and long. The elders rushed to the edge and looked down. It could only have been a second before they heard the final slam – a sound they would all remember for as long as they lived. Something like a smashed china bowl. They gasped. Paper wraps rock. Yet, it would seem the child was not made of paper after all, but soft flesh and blood and bone. Rock. Rock. Rock. You win.
Rock matches rock.
Just before dawn, the forest is still once more. The bright sun of tomorrow will soon rise with a promise that everything will be better. A fair-haired child, withered and worn, silently sobs while she sleeps in the hidden domed house of glass. Her time, she knows, will come with one of those tomorrows.
As ever, I’d love to know your thoughts – either below or in a message. With love…
Copyright 2019 Joon Haque. All rights reserved.