Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Diamond Girl

In your version of the story, the girl is a junkie. She is seventeen, standing on the side of the road with a garbage bag at her feet, and in the bag, she has a teddy bear and a box of Girl Scout cookies she stole from her niece. Her arm is outstretched, palm facing the sky. She’s hitchhiking but not with her thumb. It looks like she’s asking the sky for rain.

When a car pulls alongside her, it’s the mother’s boyfriend and he says, Hey, sugar. She begins to run. Wheatgrass is scratching her calves and the dryness of it sears her. She is aware of every blade. There is a feeling, spreading from the place just beneath her ribs, that she’s having a heart attack. It’s sharp and contained, blooming. It will eat her. She watches her feet as she runs. She wills them to fly. The veins between her toes look like they came from the soil.

He lies on top of her in the grass. He tangles his hands in her black hair and pulls.

In another version, the girl wants it. She has a gap between her front teeth, but people say it’s striking. When her mother’s in the bathroom, she bites the man’s ear. Crawls under the table and kisses him. If he doesn’t want her back, her heart will break. She can feel it breaking even then, with her head in his lap and his hands in her hair. And later, when he kisses her mother, he’s watching her over the mother’s shoulder. He has one green eye and one blue eye.

When the mother finds them in the shower, he calls the girl a witch and she tries to become one. She locks herself in the bedroom and wills the house to catch fire. The mother and boyfriend leave. They take the couch cushions and the pans. They take the shampoo and the toothpaste and the toilet paper. He’s closing the door behind them when the mother says wait. She takes the girl’s fish from his tank and puts him in the microwave. He pops like a balloon.

The mother’s boyfriend drives the first girl to a motel. She doesn’t know where she is, only that the carpet feels like soggy cereal below her feet and the face in the mirror is not familiar to her. The overhead light is strange. Her cheeks are hollowed out and she looks old. The mother’s boyfriend locks the door. He puts a gun down by the television and turns it on to block out the sounds that the girl makes. Crying sounds. Breathing sounds.

At first the diamonds look like chicken pox. Small red pustules erupting on the girl’s belly. She’s lying on the bed and the man is watching the sores grow. He touches them carefully. He kisses them. They make constellations on her skin and he traces them with his finger. Orion’s Belt. Andromeda. Virgo. His hand is cold and her eyes try to open, but the lids are too heavy. He takes the needle from the pillow by her head and places it on the bedside table. Lays down next to her and says they’re going to be okay.

The gap-toothed girl is lying in the bathtub at home. The house is empty. It smells like burnt fish. The diamonds are so sharp that all she needs to do is touch the skin and it breaks. She collects the stones in a soap dish. The bath water is pink with tiny cataclysms of blood.

Her body says there are a thousand ways to be crushed without dying. She thinks about putting clothes on for the first time in a month. She thinks about going down to the jewelers. She thinks that if her mother had known she could grow diamonds under her skin, she would have never left.

But in my story, the girl is only nine. Her name is Little Mina and her older sister’s name is Kate.

Kate picks up every worm on the road and throws it back into the wet grass. When the pond overflows, she collects the frogs and puts them in a box at the foot of her bed. Kate brushes her strawberry blonde hair every morning. Powders the freckles on her nose when a traveler stops for dinner. But Little Mina’s hair grows in mousy patches. It looks like it was glued on by a drunk. Their mother, who owns an inn, doesn’t like it when Little Mina interacts with the customers.

Little Mina tells Kate that she’s killing the worms, that the worms leave the grass because they’ll drown there. Kate laughs and calls her a know-it-all. She says that it must be hard for Little Mina, not knowing who her father is, and she means it. Kate’s father comes to see her every few weeks. He wears fur on his collar and his sword has a hilt that was dipped in gold.

He brings Kate chocolate. He gives the mother flour and wine and sugar. When he hunts, he brings them an entire deer.

He does not know about Little Mina. When he comes to the inn, the mother locks her in the cellar and tells her to hush. Little Mina draws faces on the walls. She draws maps and swans and a man with a single wing.

But after he leaves, Kate shares her chocolate with Little Mina. They take it to the river and watch fish jump from the water. They overturn rocks and look for salamanders. When Kate finds a turquoise one, she lets Little Mina name it. She wants Little Mina to have something of her own. One day, when she sees Little Mina with the hand mirror, pulling at her strange hair, Kate cuts some of her own and says, look, now we’re like twins.

When Kate dies—let’s call it scarlet fever—everyone wishes it had been Little Mina. They build a statue for Kate by the duck pond. At the ceremony, a little boy talks about the time Kate defended him from bullies. Another boy says Kate was his soulmate, a hero, a lady. Little Mina wears a thin black cape tied around her neck. She does not talk. The mother does not stand with her. Nobody sees her. Black is an absence.

From the edge of the woods, the witch watches her cry.

When your girl wakes up, her skin sticks to the motel’s bedspread. She is naked and bleeding and she thinks he might have killed her, but the cuts aren’t deep. Too bad. There is an open cigarette pack on the bedside table, and small, rough stones are spilling out the top. She holds one to her eye. A sliver of light sneaks through the closed blinds and splinters in the center of the stone. The face of it is an entire landscape. Blood curls in the canyons. She takes one and fits it into the empty sore between her breasts. My baby, she says. Her mouth is dry. Her swollen tongue sticks to the roof of it.

If only they were bigger. Long and sharp as a knife. The mother’s boyfriend is in the bathroom. She can hear the shower running. She can see steam coming from the open door. She wills her body to grow a diamond strong enough to kill him. She rolls onto her side and the sores hurt. Her right wrist is handcuffed to the bedpost. It wasn’t like that when she went to sleep.

She reaches for the man’s bag. There must be something left. Pills. Powder. Something sharp.

The statue of Kate is covered with snow. Snowdrifts grow from her shoulders. Little Mina rushes across the square without looking at it, she can’t look at it. She borrows a horse from one of her mother’s guests and rides to the witch’s house. The witch lives at the base of the mountain, where the forest starts in earnest. Her walls are made of living trees. The gaps between the branches are full of birds. The roof is a piece of sky she cut down and hammered onto the topmost branches. It took months to climb high enough and then she had to wait for a sunny day. She used her scalpel, and once she was finished, she folded it into a square small enough to fit in her purse.

In your story, the witch doesn’t have a roof made of sky. In your story, the witch is the woman at the gas station who sees the girl in the front seat, the girl too young to be so thin, too young to have her hair falling out, to have bruises on her neck, to be a junkie. Your witch pays and drives away. She nods at the mother’s boyfriend.

I’m being consumed by sores, Little Mina says. My mother won’t call the doctor because there is no money to pay him.

Your mother still owes me, the witch says.

The witch had been called in for Kate, too, but by then Kate was already dead. The mother shrieked and pulled her hair. Bring her back, she said. You’re the witch. Bring her back. But the witch said no one can bring back a dead girl.

I don’t want to die, Little Mina says.

She thinks of the way her sister’s room smelled at the end. The way Kate didn’t see any of them. Didn’t feel Little Mina’s hand in hers. Little Mina loved Kate. Kate was everything, and then she stopped breathing and everyone was alone.

We’ll figure something out, the witch says. Come in out of the cold.

Underneath the chilly blue sky roof, the witch takes her scalpel from the drawer and lays it next to the tweezers. Little Mina climbs onto the kitchen table and lays naked with her belly, her palms, to the sky. A few sprigs of dried lavender hang above her. The mother doesn’t know where Mina is. She doesn’t care. She is angry at Little Mina for wanting to live.

You’re younger than I expected, Little Mina said.

The witch warms her hands in the fireplace. Her skin is smooth and her hair is rich. Long looping braids wrap around her head like a dark and heavy halo. She is even more beautiful than Kate was.

Not every part of me is young, the witch says. She holds up her hands. Raised and ropey veins under mottled, elephantine skin. Short and swollen nail beds. And then she touches the sore on Little Mina’s hip. She presses gently and spreads the skin. She takes her scalpel and cuts. Takes her tweezers and pries. The harder she pulls, the harder the flesh holds onto the diamond. The diamond is precious to the flesh. It will not let go.

The first one’s the hardest, the witch says. She drops the diamond into a ceramic bowl by Mina’s feet. She presses her hands over the open skin and it heals. It is luminescent, like someone’s draped a piece of moon over it.

The gap-toothed girl takes the microwave and throws it into the dumpster. She buys a new microwave and a new fish with the money the jeweler gave her. Rough diamonds aren’t as valuable as cut diamonds, he said. Think of all the work I’ll have to put in. Do you know how hard it is to cut a diamond? But still, there’s a bit of money. Enough to buy a match and burn down the house. Enough to buy a truck and throw the microwave onto the floor of the passenger seat. Enough to get to New York City.

She changes her name so that her mother won’t find her. She calls herself Chloe. Sickle-shaped scars are littered across her skin, but she wears long sleeves and no one knows. She is giddy with the value of her body. She looks into the mirror in her new apartment and says, You are the most valuable girl in the entire fucking world.

The witch takes five diamonds as her fee. One is so small, it resembles a piece of fairy dust. She places it in a locket made of stellar ash, which she wears around her neck. She keeps other things in there, too, she says. A piece of hair from Joan of Arc. A fingernail from Merga Bien. An ear canal from a snake.

Who’s Merga Bien? Little Mina says.

The witch dabs lavender honey on the scars.

An old friend, she says.

The witch wraps a cheesecloth around a clear blue diamond with two stars inside. She places the diamond and the cheesecloth in a basket and gives them to her garden gnome. The gnome glares at Little Mina.

He mutters to himself, calls Mina the daughter of the devil.

I can give you a better life, the witch says. If you trust me.

And that sounds okay to Little Mina because she has wanted a better life for nine years. She wants to be loved. She wants a father. She wants a mother. She wants someone to be proud of her. She wants to be somebody like Kate.

Nothing in her says stop. Nothing in her says, This woman might want something from you in return.

So the witch sends her garden gnome to the castle with a letter and a basket. Standing at the window, they watch him walk into the woods, his footsteps small and deep in the snow.

When the prince arrives at the inn, Little Mina’s mother lays her only tablecloth on his table. She feeds him pancakes with blueberry butter and lemon zest and she asks if he is lost. The prince is handsome in the traditional way of princes. His hair makes an S across his forehead. He has thick eyebrows, the measure of a strong person, and a nose that’s already been broken by the hilt of a sword. He is engaged to marry a princess from the north, but he doesn’t much care for northerners and the king has said that whichever prince—and there are twelve—finds a solution to the kingdom’s debt will be the next king. I’m not saying that his intentions are impure. It is noble to save an unloved diamond girl from a life of sadness and it is noble to save a kingdom from bankruptcy.

If only Kate were still alive, the mother thinks. She was so beautiful! She could woo a prince.

Does Little Mina live here? the prince says.

The mother stares at him.

What do you want with her?

I want to marry her, he says.

But she’s only nine. She’s an ugly little child. She hasn’t even a last name.

I’ll wait. In five years, she’ll be fourteen. But in the meantime, I’ll bring her back to the castle. Let her stay with me and in time we’ll know each other.

The mother continues to stare.

I’m only sixteen, the prince says.

The mother goes to fetch her in a daze. She doesn’t know about the diamonds. Not yet. By the time Little Mina comes downstairs, there are two more princes in the dining room. One has a mustache with flecks of silver in it. He refuses to sit with his brothers. He paces in front of the fireplace. The band across his chest is decorated with twenty-seven engraved buttons. As the eldest, he shouldn’t have to fight for the crown. It should simply be his.

Little Mina underestimated the stature of princes. She stands in the doorway, holding on to the wall. She has brushed her mousy hair and pinched her cheeks. Her dress is made of milkweeds that the witch plucked and sewed together for just this occasion. It is so light. She thinks it might blow away if someone opens the door. It feels like wearing clouds.

You don’t have to choose now, the eldest says.

Of course not, says the first. You’ll want to pick well. No need to rush.

But do come with us, the youngest says. We’ve always wanted a sister.

He smiles shyly at her. A boy of eight. If he weren’t wearing a crown, he could be a baker’s son. Round, pleasant cheeks. Soft brown eyes.

On the way to the castle, Little Mina shows the youngest boy her scars. The diamonds rattle in a basket at her feet.

Is there such a thing faster than this carriage? she says. She is feverish with happiness. She’s never moved so fast in her life. She’s never left her village, except to wander the woods by the witch’s house. Through the window, she sees a river laden with white water, beautiful brick houses on either side. Someone in a fishing boat waves to them and she waves back.

Of course! he says. There’s such a thing as a galloping horse! There’s such a thing as a cheetah!

The other princes ride their own horses outside of the carriage. They don’t talk to Little Mina for the whole trip. But the youngest one won’t stop talking. He’s been waiting his whole life for someone who will listen to him. He tells her about the time he put red food coloring into the moat and everyone thought it was blood. She tells him about the time she put honey into her mother’s clogs.

As they’re entering the capital, she gives him a yellow diamond to keep.

Chloe sells her diamonds on 47th Street. For fun, she works as a waitress. She is pretty and her memory is good. The chef flirts with her. One night he tells her a secret. He says that he was born with webbed arms, but that the webs were cut right away. He says that he still has webbed toes. He slips off his shoe and runs the webs along her Achilles tendon.

I have a secret, too, she says. She pulls back her sleeve and shows him the half-moon scars on her forearm. Shows him the scars on her lower back. Shows him the new sores forming on her thigh. Chloe is consistent. Her diamonds don’t fail. They don’t refuse to grow. Because in this version of the story, science doesn’t matter. In this version, there is no such thing as truth.

How often does this happen? he says.

Regularly, she says. Whenever I see a homeless person sleeping on a grate. Whenever I see a girl crying on the subway. I take their sadness and I make it my own.

What about you? he says.

Ha! I grow diamonds! I bought my own apartment! I don’t have sadness.

In that version it might be true. In that version, gap-toothed Chloe might fuck the chef and steal his heartbreak—the chef had been divorced, the chef had lost his father. She might use him to wash away the stench of the mother’s boyfriend. She might become the international CEO of a company. Be on the cover of Vogue. Be celebrated by the entire country for her mutation. She might buy a brownstone and a white tiger and only wear spider silk. And one day, in a windowless hotel room in Reno, her mother will see her on TV and say to the boyfriend, don’t you wish you picked her.

The king treats Little Mina like a princess. She has everything she could want. To look at her, you’d never know the kingdom is nearly bankrupt. You’d never know two men lost their lives to bring her the baby unicorn. You’d never know how little the gardener is paid to bring her fresh flowers every morning. And it’s not necessarily the things that make Little Mina happy. Every day, people want to see her. When she walks onto her balcony, the townspeople wave and shout, Good afternoon, Diamond Girl! The princes ask what her favorite dessert is and then they make the chefs prepare it. At first, she doesn’t know how to respond. She says syrup and they laugh. Syrup is not a dessert. Chocolate soufflé is a dessert. Crème brûlée is a dessert. Lemon meringue is a dessert.

The mother comes to live in the capital and they treat her like an aunt. They support her, because she’s the mother of the diamond maker. She visits Little Mina every day. Dotes on her. She says, You are the most valuable little girl in the entire world. She brushes Little Mina’s hair like she used to brush Kate’s.

Months go by and Little Mina learns how to order white truffle cheesecake and blood orange fondue. The princes travel for weeks to get the truffles. There are trolls who guard the truffle fields and the princes pay them in gold. They order blood oranges from the other side of the world. Little Mina smiles to think of how much they love her. How they will do anything for her. They don’t complain. They say she is the best thing that’s ever happened to them.

For her twelfth birthday, she’s given a mirror made of silver and in it she looks beautiful. But as she carries it from the feast, everyone watches her go and they are all thinking the same thing: It’s been over two years and she hasn’t produced a single diamond.

The king turns the diamond ring on his finger. It came from her collarbone, years ago. It is the diamond that the witch sent.

Do you know how diamonds are made? he says to his wife.

They come from the earth, she says. She is not a stupid woman.

Bury coal deep within the earth. Heat it until it’s its own small sun. Squeeze it until there’s not a single breath left and then freeze it, he says.

The youngest son is listening. He has sewn the rough yellow stone that Mina gave him into the collar of his shirt. He touches the fabric and thinks of how she’s changed. Her skin is smoother now. Her jawline plumper. Just last night she asked him for a dress made of the sea. He shook his head sadly and said it was impossible.

In your version, the girl is dying. The man carries her over the threshold of their new house. He bought the house with money from her diamonds. He says he bought it for her, so that they can build a life together, but she can barely walk and the house is situated on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The driveway winds back and forth. She pushes against his chest. Her wrists are willow thin. She feels his arms around her like vines. They are choking her. She imagines herself in the jungle, wrapped in the arms of a tree, with a boa constrictor watching, waiting for her to wake up.

He goes out and comes back. He wakes her up at night, or he doesn’t. There are the twin pricks of the needle in her arms, her toes, the veins behind her knees, and of him pushing himself into her, breaking her sparrow hips. She feels them both like lightning. She stares at the cracks on the ceiling. Makes maps out of them. Finds a crack that leads all the way to the wall and follows it to the Arctic Circle, to anywhere she can be free. And every day he’s prying the stones from her skin, leaving her empty. She’s trapped inside her body and there’s no one there to tell. She tries to move her lips and the language that comes out isn’t hers.

She puts her hand in his hair and tries to pull back his head. He thinks it’s affectionate. He kisses the diamond below her belly button before he cuts. Outside, the sea makes sounds like a baby. In it, she hears someone drowning.

It doesn’t take long to realize that the diamonds have dried up, the same way ice cubes melt in warm water.

They move Little Mina to a cave above the sea—much like the house in your story. They call for the witch and her scalpel, so that she can cut the diamonds when they grow. They lock her away with Little Mina for the time being. Perhaps, years ago, the witch did something horrible. Perhaps the witch accidentally killed the princes’ baby sister when an experiment went wrong. When a single candle exploded with the life force of an army and blew apart the west wing of the castle, the wing where the nursery was. Perhaps that’s why she lived in a sky-roof house in the middle of nowhere with only a garden gnome for company when she could have been living in luxury. What I’m saying is, the witch had it coming.

They send the mother, too, because why should they continue to pay for her rent? And what use is the mother without the daughter? The girl is young. She needs a mother. They’re kind enough, at least, to know that.

There are two windows through which Little Mina can hear the swollen water and smell the salt. On the first day, she stands at the window and watches the water move. It puts her in mind of something haunted, as if the sea were a great basin containing everything that was already dead and everything still living. She is wearing silk the color of lilacs and an ermine shawl. It is softer, even, than the milkweed dress. If you’d ever worn a dress that soft, you would miss it, too. You would think about it every night.

The princes promised they would bring desserts. The youngest one said he would visit. He said he was sorry and embarrassed that things turned out the way that they did. He said he would try to find her a dress made of the sea.

They think it’s something to do with sadness, the mother says. So be sad. Think of your sister. Think of that orphanage that was burnt to the ground last week. There are so many things to be sad about. Why can’t you be sad in a palace? Why can’t you be sad when you are loved? You are a selfish little girl.

A diamond needs desperation to grow, the witch says. It needs to suffocate. In the castle, she could walk the grounds whenever she wanted. She had her choice of playmates. What more does a child need?

She would be more grieved without me, the mother says. If they want more diamonds, they should let me return to my business.

Your only business was being mother to the diamond maker.

The mother throws a stone from the floor of the cave into the water below. The splash is too small to see.

Little Mina turns to the witch. Why did you do it? Did you know it would turn out this way?

The witch rolls her eyes. People always think I know what will happen. You’re the diamond maker. I’m just the one with the scalpel.

When your girl dies—an overdose, a heart attack, a wish coming true—the man is beside himself. He pulls every diamond from the drawers and counts them. There are four hundred and seventy-six. But what will he do when the money runs out? What will he do now, with no one in the world to call his own? He is sweating, shaking, pacing the room from open window to open window. He can smell her there on the bed. He can smell the sea and it smells like she does. Like the belly of a ship. He takes her shoulders and shakes her. Throws her head down on the pillows. He scratches her skin with his fingernails but nothing comes out.

At night, he mutters to himself. He opens the kitchen drawer and fits the blade into the electric knife. He will get the diamonds. He cuts into her thigh, but the only thing he finds is blood and damp tissue. He looks everywhere. Blood leaks as he draws the blade through her shoulder. Pieces of bone fly and at first, he sees the white and thinks diamonds! But no. They’re only the dry, sad underthings of a human.

I believe you when you say that’s the way it happened. But in my story, no one has an electric knife. No one could look at another body and butcher it.

It only takes three weeks for the sores to come back. The mother and the witch are bickering every day, and the door to the cave locks from the outside. No one can leave. Well, the witch can leave. She can unbutton her skin and slither through the crack in the wall, but when she does, she looks bald and burnt, bare muscle and fat without skin to contain it. The skin puddles sadly on the floor of the cave until she comes back. Its eyes watch the mother.

The mother is going insane. She resents the other two. She can barely look at Little Mina. Tells Little Mina again and again that it should have been Kate who lived.

By the time Mina is fifteen, she’s a regular diamond mine. The youngest prince sends books, but he does not visit. Mina reads. She draws on the walls. She pretends to be Kate and that makes the mother happy. Most of the time, the mother believes her.

I had a daughter once, the witch says. I took branches from the ash near my house, a handful of snowberries, a calla lily—a couple of small things from around the living room, a clam shell, this old leather drum, a piece of rotten bread. A piece of coal. I buried the coal where her heart would be. And then I had a daughter.

What’s coal? the mother says.

It is something like a diamond, but black.

What happened to her? Little Mina says.

I put her in a basket and fed her to some wolves. But I meant well.

One night when the witch is wandering along the beach below them, the mother steals her skin. She pulls it on over one foot and then the other. She buttons it up from her left heel to the nape of her neck. She wraps the braids around her head. She tries to become the witch. She wants to disappear. When the witch gets back, the mother refuses to return it.

I don’t want to kill you, the witch says. But I will.

You don’t need it, the mother wails. It’s beautiful and young and you don’t need it.

Little Mina wishes that her mother would keep the skin on. She wishes her mother would turn into the witch. But in the end the mother gives the skin back. No one is happy, but everyone is alive.

In one version of my story, the youngest prince is engaged to a beautiful girl from the east. On the night before the wedding, he clasps a diamond necklace around her neck—a thin chain of diamonds with the big yellow diamond cut and polished at its center. They stand together in front of the silver mirror. She touches the diamond and sighs. He watches her eyelids flutter, the veins in them hungry and frail.

The next morning, he packs a bag. He pays the guard beside his door to keep quiet and then he flees. He takes a key with him and he rides all day until he reaches the sea. He climbs the long staircase, running two steps at a time. When he flings the door open, he sees Little Mina lying on her back with her breasts to the ceiling. She is naked and bleeding. The witch leans over her with a scalpel in her right hand. In her left, she holds tweezers. The girl is crying silently. In the corner, the mother babbles to herself. She says isn’t this always the way with children, they want and they want and when they get what they want, they’re bored. When they get the life they want, it’s just a façade. Because didn’t Little Mina want the diamonds? Didn’t she keep them a secret from the mother for all those months before the princes came? Didn’t she want them and hoard them and love them?

I don’t have the dress made of water, the prince says.

Little Mina draws a sheet over herself. She’s horrified to be caught like this, so vulnerable, so liminal. Half the diamonds have already been removed. Half are still in their pockets of skin. It’s been so long since anyone has seen her as a girl. Has seen the skin as anything other than hard-packed earth and now it’s on display and not only the skin, but the blood beneath it.

Even now, even with the kingdom rolling in diamonds, no one ever visits.

There are places we could go, the prince says. I can make you happy. We’ll make a life together and you’ll never grow another diamond again. But everyone will know you stole me, Little Mina says.

He looks at the mother and at the witch. The witch shrugs. Do what you want, she says. Just leave the door open so I’m not stuck here with that woman.

And Little Mina wants to believe him, so she says yes. He cuts the rest of the diamonds out himself. The sores heal immediately under the soft print of his fingers. She feels desire like a dragon in her belly. No one has ever touched her so softly. The witch looks away. She is ashamed of the hardness of her own hands. She is ashamed, maybe, of what she did to the girl.

In this version, the girl and the prince live happily ever after in a faraway place. Little Mina has a daughter and when the daughter cries, her tears hit the floor and become frogs. They hop all over the house. The prince laughs when a frog jumps into a bowl of soup. Little Mina laughs the hardest. She tells her daughter that she’s lucky and the daughter laughs, too, because the frogs are funny. No one will ever want a girl who cries frogs. Not for the frogs, at least. That’s not the way the world works.

Your endings are lonely. The thing about Chloe is that her skin never stops making diamonds. Her skin never stops being sharp. So when she curls her body into the crook of a man, she cuts him. Even a good man. Even a man who she loves. The thing about the other girl, the dead girl, is that she died. Heaven is the loneliest place on Earth, you say. Your stories are cruel. They exploit. They isolate. They make it impossible to be human.

You think I’m childish. You think I don’t understand them.

But I do.

Let’s say the prince marries the other girl. She is more beautiful than Little Mina. Her hair grows thick and blonde. She comes with an entire kingdom and three chests of gold. Let’s say the prince isn’t who we want him to be. He isn’t as strong as we want him to be.

But then, neither is Little Mina. No one is fighting hard enough.

One night when the mother is asleep, the witch takes Little Mina into her arms and rocks her. She apologizes. She says she wanted so badly to give her a good life, but she didn’t know how. She says that if she could remove the mother’s skin and step into that mortal body, she would. But a mortal body won’t survive if you skin it, and the skin won’t survive either. There’s a way for the mother to become the witch, but not for the witch to become the mother.

It’s confusing, she says, but that’s just the way the world works. Maybe what she means is that she is the mother already, and Little Mina is the girl in the basket.

It’s too bad, Little Mina says, no one would miss my mother.

I can give you freedom, the witch says. I can, at least, give you that.

The girl is laden with heavy sores. She is fit to burst, so valuable in that exact moment that she could sink to the bottom of the sea and not be found until her ribs float to the surface. She squeezes one of the sores on her elbow. It’s almost ready.

If freedom is dying, she says, I don’t want it.

It isn’t dying, the witch says.

The witch digs into her purse and brings out the folded piece of sky that was her roof. It is a sunny day, the sky a frosted blue. It lights up the interior of the cave even though there is no sun and outside, it is night. Little Mina runs her fingers along the edge of it.

Take it, the witch says. Wrap it around yourself.

And then what? Little Mina says. She is sick with the weight of the diamonds. She is like an old dog that has had too many litters. She is like a mine whose sides are worn with too many pick-axes. There are canaries inside of her, and they all say to run.

You’ll be too big for this room, the witch says. You’ll break the walls down and the sky will take you back into itself. I have a long ladder. I will visit you.

Little Mina drapes the sky over her shoulders. She wraps it around her naked waist and pulls it tight. Coolness descends over every inch of her. She feels like a child again. She feels like she did before her sister died, before she realized that her hair would never be pretty and her skin was scarred and that nobody loved her in the whole wide world. She is her father and her mother and her sister. She is the witch. She is you and she is me.

Little Mina says goodbye to the witch, and thank you. Then she tugs the sky over her head and bursts from the cave. She flies to the edge of the Earth and pins herself back into place along the horizon, her body an absence, with stars in every imaginable color blinking roughly against the black night.

Courtney Bird

Courtney Bird’s stories have appeared in the Fairy Tale Review, the Indiana Review, the Masters Review, and Barrelhouse, among others. She has an MFA from the University of Montana and a BA in art history from Princeton. She is currently working on her first novel.