Out of the Woods
Tough bristles raked at the wood while Emma worked the large broom back and forth across her front porch, careful to keep her toes out of the way. The end of the handle reached up past her head. Uneven boards shifted with her weight as she inched across the porch of her family’s modest house, accompanied by a steady rhythm of scratching. She kept her gaze down, avoiding looking into the dark pines of Widowswood so close to her home. The murk among the trees felt alive—as if it stared at her—even though such things only happened in Nan’s nonsense tales. Yet, as much as she couldn’t believe them, she still refused to look up.
Her grandmothers’ stories of monsters scared small children, not a girl of ten years.
The wind whispered at the trees, but no breeze reached the village. She leaned on the broom while wiping sandy grit off the bottom of her foot against her shin. An eerie roar, deep, pained, and not quite human, rang out in the distance, startling birds from the treetops.
Emma jumped and clutched the broom handle to her chest, not breathing. She stared into the woods. Darkness lurked in the gaps of the forest, but nothing moved. The stillness broke a moment later with a shout like the first, only the noise seemed less monstrous, merely an unseen huntsman’s bellow echoing among the boughs. She relaxed, and resumed sweeping. Da would be home soon. As usual, he’d been out all day with the village watch. His patrol would end when the sun set.
She made it three quarters of the way across the porch when a sudden breeze carried spinning whorls of dirt from the road back over where she had swept, ruining her work. Emma grumbled, trudging to the right to start again from the beginning. Da had chosen to build their house at the village edge, where the street was little more than a wide footpath worn in the grass. Emma scowled at the drifts of grit and rushed to clear the re-dirtied porch with a series of haphazard swipes.
Why do I do this at all? It’ll only become dirty again in an hour.
Satisfied with her slapdash effort, she stepped with care around the already-swept patches and worked the broom back and forth at the point she left off. Her knees peeked out from under grey flax. She’d soon need a new dress, having grown too big to wear this one much longer. Emma had already worn it well past the point of Da’s approval. Mama seemed at ease with it, even if it did leave her looking like an urchin. The threadbare garment had a torn seam, frayed threads, several holes, and kept sagging down off her left shoulder. Emma adored it because Nan had made it for her. She would much rather wear it than something from the town tailor, crafted for no one specific. This dress was hers, and it made her feel safe.
She stalled, leaning on the broom again with a somber stare at the distant buildings. The Watch paid well, and his distant family had money, not that she had ever met them. Da could afford to buy clothes—nice clothes—and did not care for her traipsing about in ‘a rag.’ Emma wanted to wear this dress until it didn’t fit anymore or fell to pieces. Nan was old, her fingers not as nimble as they used to be, and she feared her grandmother wouldn’t be able to make another one.
A lump formed in Emma’s throat. The wind picked up again, rustling the forest and tousling her hair. Nan wouldn’t be with them for much longer. Two of Nan’s friends had passed recently. It had been two years since Da’s old dog, Wooly, had refused to wake up. She had been eight then, and still cried a little whenever she thought about the mutt. That dog had been old for as long as she could remember, and from the way Da spoke of him, he’d lived surprisingly long for a dog. Emma stared at her toes, wondering how much worse it would feel to lose Nan than a dog. She knew the day would come, but that didn’t make the idea hurt any less. She wanted to spend more time with her grandmother, but most of her day went toward taking care of her little brother Tam while Mama went into town and Da kept everyone safe.
It made her feel important, helping ease the burden on Mama and allowing her daily visits to the villagers to resume. Everyone loved her mother, and people had always come by the house to visit while she’d been stuck at home with Tam.
The snap of a twig nearby made her glance into the murk of Widowswood with a twinge of unease.
Nothing is watching me. Stop being childish.
Emma turned the broom, spinning it on a long clump of bristles. It felt like forever ago since she’d been Tam’s age, and her only worry had been how she would play. She set her jaw in determination and resumed sweeping. It’s okay. Mama needs my help. Soon after Emma made it to the far end of the porch, Mama appeared on the road in the distance, walking out from where the village buildings grew too thick to see past. She waved, and Emma stood as tall as she could to return it. Her mother chatted with a few wandering people on her way up the long, curved trail leading from the town proper to their home. Feeling guilty, Emma hurried back to the poorly swept areas.
Mama walked up onto the porch, pausing for a warm hug. “How is the house?”
“Good, Mama. Tam’s inside, Nan’s having a nap.”
“No faeries steal anything?” She winked.
“Mama,” said Emma with a bit of groan in her voice. “I’m too old to believe in faeries. Bad luck and carelessness aren’t the work of little magical people no one can see.”
“So smart, Emma.” Mama gave her a light pat on the cheek. “Come help me with dinner when you’re done here?”
Emma wiped the grit from her feet again and spent a few minutes chasing sand off the porch.
“Apple for a bit?” chirped a tiny voice.
The sickly sweet scent of fermenting fruit lofted on the wind. Emma pulled her hair out of her eyes and glanced down the three steps to the road. A grimy redheaded girl a year or two younger than her shied away from Emma’s stare, digging her toes into the road and forcing a smile. Her once-white dress was ripped and stained, in worse shape than Emma’s. She held out a wide, flat basket with a number of sorry-looking apples, most of which seemed to have been plucked from the ground. Small cuts and scrapes marked her legs, evidence of hours spent roaming the forest underbrush. Faint dark discoloration painted the child’s cheek below her right eye. Even at ten, the sight of the other girl filled her with a motherly urge.
“Minnit,” said Emma, spinning on her heel and leaning the broom against the wall. She darted inside and found Mama cutting vegetables by the large iron cauldron.
A plump robin perched on the tiny window above the cooking area chirped, tilted its head at Emma, and chirped again. Mama whistled on and off at it, as if mimicking bird noises.
Emma rolled her eyes, thinking back to her mother claiming she spoke to the birds. “Mama, can I have a copper bit?”
“For what, Em?” Mama stilled her knife and smiled. Her long raven tresses had a faint curl, and her eyes held the deep blue color of sapphires. Everyone called Emma a smaller version of her, and would look the same when she grew up—a fate Emma proudly accepted. She wondered if Nan had been pretty too.
Emma pointed at the door. “Kimber is selling apples again. She looks hungry.”
A look of worry flashed in Mama’s eyes. She set the knife down and crossed the kitchen in two steps to peer out the curtained window. With a sigh, she moved to a drawer and rummaged out a brown cloth pouch. Emma folded her hands in front of herself, waiting, eyeing a round wheat bread as big as a cat’s head among the vegetables.
“Go ahead, Em.” Mama handed her two copper coins, and the bread. “Awful the way that man treats the poor girl. I’ve half a mind to have your father pay that drunken lout a visit.”
Emma smiled, hugged her mother, and scurried for the door. Kimber waited a short distance from the porch, swaying back and forth with an eager expression. When Emma held out the two copper bits, the girl’s eyes watered up. She hefted the basket.
“Thank you, miss Emma. Take any two you please.”
She sifted among the apples, searching for ones without obvious worms. Many still had bits of branch clinging to them. She chose two that didn’t look rotten, and left the large roll in their place. Kimber’s pale blue eyes widened in astonishment. She stared at it for a moment, almost afraid, then bit her lip and glanced over her shoulder at town, turning her body as if to hide the bread from anyone in that direction.
“Kinnae sit ’ere an’ eat it?” Kimber shot a frightened, sad stare into the dirt path.
“Kay.” Emma gestured at the porch, and joined her on the step.
The younger girl held the round loaf to her face like a squirrel with an acorn and gnawed on it as though it would be ripped from her hands at any moment. She peered up every few bites with smiling eyes. Emma’s happiness dimmed at the realization some of the dark spots on the girl’s face didn’t come from dirt, but bruises.
“Come back if you’re hungry again.” Emma traced lines on the ground with her toe.
Crumbs fell out of Kimber’s grin. She mumbled something like “thank you” past a full mouth.
“Sorry you get hit.” Emma scowled in the direction of town. “I should tell my Da.”
The red-haired girl stopped eating, a mournful stare at the half-loaf in her hand. “Is okay. Papa’s not bad alla time. Only when he’s got his pay and ’as silverberry wine.” Kimber jammed the bread into her mouth again.
Emma smirked and leaned back on her hands, gazing into the waning daylight. Nan would say she should ask the spirits to aid the other girl. Da thought people should pray to the gods for help with events outside their control. She picked at a frayed thread by her hip. Spirits and gods weren’t real, and even if they were, they wouldn’t care about one tiny waif among all the people of the world.
Kimber spent a minute picking crumbs out of her dress and eating them before she jumped up and curtsied. “Thank ya for the bread, Miss Emma.”
“I’m not old enough to be a ‘miss’ yet.” Emma frowned. “Thank my mum for lettin’ me.”
Mama’s laughter leaked onto the porch.
The girl stood, faced the house, and raised her voice. “Thank ya, Miss Emma’s Mum.”
Kimber carried her basket of pathetic apples off down the street to the next house. With a sad sigh, Emma resumed her sweeping. Tam hated chores. Emma didn’t mind them, or that he didn’t do any. The more she did, the less her mother had to do. The boy was only six, too young to understand much beyond the faerie tales of dragons and knights that Nan read to him. In many ways, Da was a bigger version of Tam. Both demanded Mama’s constant attention to keep their clothes in order. Neither could cook, and more often than not, it seemed neither could dress themselves.
It took her another fifteen minutes to sweep to the edge of the porch. Nan’s face appeared in the window, smiling. Emma grinned in response, still working the broom. A moment later, a chance shift in the wind blew into town from the woods. It gathered strength, as well as the dirt from the porch, and carried it in a tiny whirlwind down the street. Emma cringed at the gust that almost knocked her over. When it died down, she held the broom up and blinked at the porch, ready to sweep again, but the wind had left it spotless. With a satisfied grunt, she turned to go inside, but startled at a sudden motion on the road.
An older girl, perhaps sixteen, stumbled down the path leading from the village into Widowswood. She emerged from the gloomy tunnel of twisted, leaning trees, wan and dazed, in a garment made of leaves and twigs that barely covered her. Emma stared, transfixed. The young woman moved only her legs, arms dead at her sides. Sickly and thin, every rib showed clear under her skin. Her mouth agape, she staggered forward in a rickety gait, almost as though she had forgotten how to walk. She paid no attention to Emma. Her grey eyes held no spark of life. Unkempt brown hair hung down to her ankles, loaded with twigs and scraps from the forest floor. The barely-alive girl halted twenty paces distant and swayed in place. She raised one hand to cover her mouth, gawking at the village as though she couldn’t believe it real.
Emma, stunned at the sight, lost her hold on the broom.
The clack of the wooden handle striking the porch made the strange girl yelp and startle. She looked up, staring at Emma as if she had no idea what another human being even was.
“Mama!” Emma wanted to shout, but whimpered. She swallowed, backing into the wall. “Mama!” she yelled, then sidestepped closer to the door. “Mama, come here.”
Her mother appeared at the door. “What’s the matter, Em?”
Emma pointed. Mama’s eager smile fell away to a look of worry. She gathered Emma into the house with a hand on her shoulder. “Go inside, Em. Help Nan.”