Moses is not dreaming. She is remembering. She is twelve, standing drenched on the blacktop, all heaving, nervous breaths and frustrated tears blending with the rain. The air around her begins to pulse. She should have been home by now. A dozen things need doing before her mother gets home, and her little sister stands on the sidewalk, fidgeting beneath a plastic umbrella.
One day, long ago, a fierce storm scattered the royal hunting party. The prince, his best huntsman, twelve of his great lords and all their attendants, men and dogs and horses charged every which way, vanishing down one path and another until the prince and his best huntsman, whose name was Jack, were left alone, on foot, at the gates of a strange castle. “I didn’t know there was a castle here,” the prince said.
The Bone-Stag walks at midwinter, sharp-antlered, hard-hoofed. Deep white snow spreads under deep black sky. Cold air slices lungs; rivers stand as stone. Over cresting drifts comes the Bone-Stag, leaving no mark of his passing. Down in the village, they draw their curtains fast against him. They bolt tight their doors. Garlic at the lintels and holly upon the sills.
The chime above my shop door rings. It heralds a young woman wearing a head wrap boasting a network of silvery constellations on indigo, interspersed with the occasional yellow-gold moon. The wrap itself is made of silk—not the finest grade, mind you, but sufficient to conceal what she must see as a fault. None of her hair is visible, but the contorted celestial bodies show the fabric is at the end of its tether.
You don’t know about me, unless you read that fine and fancy text, the one called “A Siege of Cranes, or Reports of the Journey of the Human Peasant Marish-of-Ilmak-Dale and the Keeper Envoy Kadath-Naan, and Their Encounter with the So-Named White Witch, Agent of Unmaking and Despair, and Metaphysical and Xenobiological Observations Thereto.” But that’s all right. That text was written by the Djinni Az Yeshedurran Ra’avar Lakash, who tried to tell the truth, I guess.
Eyes half closed, I see the dark of daddy’s pants. My bedroom door swings open. Light rips into my room, then disappears. I am alone now. Daddy’s footsteps get softer and softer. I can’t relax ’til I can’t hear him no more. I turn my face to the wall. My neck is sore, but that’s better than it being broke. My breath goes from fast to slow. Then I start to notice other things. Like the moon glowing outside my window. My leg shaking so hard I can’t stop it. My fists clenched tight.
That notorious ship that sailed to the wretched isle known as Neverland under the leadership of one James, self-styled Jas., Cook, called the Jolly Roger, has most naturally been a subject of intense study among historians. Yet even the most meticulous of these scholars have often failed to note that among that dreadful crew sailed at least one woman, Gerta, or, as she named herself, the Great Gerta, or, as she was named by others, Gerta the Girthy.
The land around Marish was full of the green stalks of sunflowers: tall as men, with bold yellow faces. Their broad leaves were stained black with blood. The rustling came again, and Marish squatted down on aching legs to watch. A hedgehog pushed its nose through the stalks. It sniffed in both directions. Hunger dug at Marish’s stomach like the point of a stick. He hadn’t eaten for three days, not since returning to the crushed and blackened ruins of his house.
It doesn’t take long. She has few earthly possessions and her travel options are limited. There is a train that runs west through the Swamp Forest to the coast, but everyone knows and fears the old witch here, and on moving trains, she can cause quite a commotion. “Do not eat my children, Baba Yaga!” people cry when she steps onto the dining car. “Oh, please, have mercy! Do not use your pestle to grind up my bones!” She sits quietly in a booth, minding her own business.
The ray of light came over the eastern horizon like a sunrise, like the door to a dank jail cell cracking open, like the sweeping fiery sword before an angel of judgment. It elongated into a thin, bright, yellow wedge that washed out the stars and revealed the shining parallel tracks before it, dividing the vast, dark continent into halves, leaving behind the endless vegetal sea of the Great Plains and plunging heedlessly toward the craggy, ancient, impassive peaks of the Rockies.