The Narrow Path
I should have paid better heed; I know that, now. It’s hard, come harvest, to watch everything – children, livestock, land – and worry about a man, too. A man who should know better. A man who should have understood the danger.
But still. I should have been mindful.
I woke in the night, a cold wind trickling down my back.
‘Ger?’ I whispered, thinking maybe he was relieving himself. Or, I allowed myself to dream, tending to the baby. I rolled my eyes at the prospect. ‘Ger, where are you?’
I sat up. As I had been taught from early girlhood, I checked carefully before I put my feet on the floor. At first glance, nothing seemed wrong; the room was filled with moonlight, and all was quiet, but I blinked, and looked again. The silver glints in every corner told me They were here. Their eyes always gave Them away. Every shadow was a doorway, now. A million worlds overlapped with my tiny room, and I held my breath as I looked around.
‘Don’t touch my children,’ I said, and the only answer was a wave of sniggered laughter like an echoing whisper.
I felt my hair stirred with a breeze that was not there, and they were gone.
I ran to my children, but they slept in their cots and cradle, warm and peaceful and dream-filled, and then I knew.
I went to ask advice of the old women, who had lived many lives. Cross the stream closed-eyed, I was told, then follow the narrow path. Keep between the stones. The eldest of them all advised me to walk the path on my knees, but she knew even as she said it that I would refuse. Be prepared to be asked for more than you can give, daughter, she said. They do not like humans who come on the skin of their feet.
I left my children with my mother and set off. I could see the stream from the end of the village, and the path beyond, but I knew that meant nothing.
I could be gone for a week. A year. More.
I did as I had been told My eyes sealed shut as I stumbled across the stream. I clambered out onto the path, keeping my gaze fixed on the crooked tree. I walked between the stones.
From the fields all around I heard wailing. I heard my mother’s screams, and those of my children. I smelled burning. I did not turn, for They were everywhere, watching. Smiling.
A person stood in the shadows under the crooked tree, and I could not see his face. He had the height of my man, and the shoulder breadth. He had the scar on his left forearm, as like to Ger’s in every respect as to be the same.
‘Wife,’ he called. ‘Bring me home!’ He had Ger’s voice.
‘Tell me the names of our children,’ I called, and he did.
‘Tell me the date of our union,’ I called, and he did.
‘Tell me,’ I called, ‘the colour of my kirtle.’ He did, and it was then I knew my man was dead.
I turned from him and began the journey home, his voice clawing at my heart with every step. His words became screams the further I walked. I reached the stream and ducked my head beneath its waters in order to drown either him or myself; when I surfaced, gasping, all was quiet.
I returned to my squalling children who did not know me, but that would heal in time. I removed the borrowed kirtle and laid it carefully out on my marital bed, the bright red of it a match for my hand-woven blanket, and I recalled my man’s voice. His eyes. His laughter, when I came under his roof as his wife and he saw the gift I had brought him, over which I had laboured long.
‘No point telling me it’s red,’ he told me, kindly. ‘The way my eyes are made, it all looks grey.’ His only flaw, he’d laughed.
I folded my heart up along with the kirtle. I had children crying for their supper, and now I had only myself.